Last week’s big news with respect to North Carolina was the announcement that the school would not seek reinstatement for P.J. Hairston this year. Perhaps flying under the radar in terms of other personnel news was that starting center Joel James would be out for 10 to 14 days after an MCL sprain suffered against Texas. This opened the door for Brice Johnson, who was named the interim starter, to firmly grab hold of the center position. His results in the two games since James’ injury show why head coach Roy Williams has been hesitant to give the sophomore heavy minutes, and also why this team may miss an overlooked member of the starting lineup in James.
Johnson’s first audition in the starting role came against Davidson last Saturday, a game in which the Tar Heels struggled mightily before Marcus Paige rescued them in overtime. Johnson’s stat line was brutal, with only two points on 1-of-3 shooting, a pair of turnovers and an eventual disqualification due to fouls. This Davidson team was scrappy and shot extremely well from outside, but the Wildcats also utilized a shocking ability to get into the paint and either score or dish with little regard for UNC’s big men.
That trend continued on Friday night, when the Tar Heels were outscored in the paint by a Northern Kentucky team whose tallest player is 6’6”. A performance like that boils down to effort and proper defensive positioning, and this is an area with which Johnson continues to struggle. A lean player already, he enjoys most of his success on the defensive end with blocks coming from the weak side. When players actively back him into the basket, he struggles with reaching and committing fouls. While he was able to go 4-of-8 from the field, he was 0-of-2 in the second half and only grabbed four rebounds in 20 minutes of action. James and Kennedy Meeks surely would have contributed better rebounding tallies in similar stints on the floor (in fact, Meeks registered six boards against NKU in only 13 minutes on the floor).