LINCOLN — Not even two weeks ago, it belonged to Brandon Johns Jr.
The senior forward held it within his grasp: a place in the starting lineup, a chance at rewriting his narrative.
But then, it happened again.
Lackluster play, frequent mental errors and a tremendous talent in freshman big man Moussa Diabate sent Johns to a place that was all too familiar.
That came much quicker than probably anticipated, yet this bench stint was short lived. But not because of Johns’ play. Diabate was taken out of the game against San Diego State last Saturday due to an illness and didn’t make the trip to Nebraska for Tuesday’s game.
Even if just a limp grasp, Johns held his former role once again.
Although this time he was a bit different. Johns looked every bit the part, and played at a level many once thought he could, putting up a career-high-tying 20 points on 6-for-9 shooting in just 21 minutes in 102-67 win over the Cornhuskers.
“What he’s done is remarkable, and how he’s accepted his role,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said on Johns’ move to the bench Dec. 6. “Knowing that we need him, and we’re gonna lean on him.”
He was confident, calm and aggressive. His game was full of winning plays, a hand in a passing lane here, a tough rebound there, an ability to consistently get to the free throw line and make them — he was 6-for-7 from the line.
This was the Brandon Johns Jr. who starred at Madison Square Garden. The player who put up 20 points and seven rebounds in a Big Ten game against Rutgers that, at the time, Michigan had to have.
This stage wasn’t quite as large. Pinnacle Bank Arena never roared like The Garden and the game was not contested late into the second half — Johns himself saw his night end with a little over 10 minutes to play in the second half.
The resemblance, still, is uncanny.
But nearly two years separate that scene in The Garden and Johns’ performance Tuesday. Two years full of wasted potential, missed opportunities.
He seemed to be on the upswing after an NCAA Tournament run where he filled in quite well for an injured Isaiah Livers, helping lead Michigan to an Elite Eight appearance. But, that moment came and went without any sign of it early in the 2021 season.
“The Brandon that was in the NCAA Tournament last year, the Brandon who took Isaiah Livers’ spot, the Brandon that had 20 points in Madison Square Garden two years ago, that’s the guy that we need,” associate head coach Phil Martelli told reporters on Nov. 18. “And he very much wants to be that guy.”
That was really it. Johns wanted to be that guy. He just wasn’t.
At least, not yet.
His play was all over the place when he was a member of the starting lineup early in the month of November. Johns averaged just above five points a game and shot poorly. He often collected a pass, hesitated a shot and then tried an awkward drive to the basket that would more often than not result in a turnover.
It was ugly, and he saw his minutes fall from the twenties to the teens fast. Diabate would check in for him to a roaring applause from Crisler Center fans as Johns had to walk to the bench.
Johns found himself relegated to the familiar: a rotational piece, sitting in the shadow of someone who was simply better.
Until Tuesday night.
“We’ll get that guy back,” Martelli said hopefully all the way back on Nov. 8. “We’ll get Brandon back.”
Well, Michigan got him back, and it’ll hope it’s not just for one night.
Johns has been in this position before, each devolving to the same story: an inability to recapture greatness.
The only thing that’s left to figure out is if this time it’s any different, or if it’s just another one-game highlight in a career full of those.
Johns does not think it’ll be the latter. He’s doing this for himself and he’s confident in his ability.
“I try to start off every new day with confidence. As soon as I wake up just telling myself ‘You’re doing great,’ ” Johns said after the game, with the tone of someone who’s been here before. “I think the more affirmations I give myself, the more it compels me to have great days beyond this.
“Tomorrow’s gonna be in the past, so what can I do tomorrow to make myself better.”