The No. 11 North Carolina Tar Heels have stumbled hard twice since beginning the season as the No. 1 team in the country, and it is up to senior forward Brice Johnson to put the team on his back this week and step up in the face of adversity.
Johnson, who is currently averaging 13.4 points and a team-best 9.1 rebounds per game, will need to be an even bigger impact player in the paint when UNC takes on Tulane at home tomorrow, but then No. 22 UCLA at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Saturday. Given how the Bruins have already defeated ever dangerous Kentucky and speedy Gonzaga this year thanks to strong on-ball defense and strong rebounding, not to mention strong shooting, the Tar Heels could be in for another long game.
That is because already this season, UNC has already fallen to two unranked opponents in the MVC’s Northern Iowa Panthers and the Big 12’s Texas Longhorns. Granted, UNI won due to neutralizing the Tar Heels’ scoring attack and forcing 12 turnovers and Texas won courtesy of a buzzer-beating shot by Javan Felix, but it should also be noted that the Longhorns out-rebounded UNC 36-27.
Which brings the conversation to UNC’s x-factor this week. Rebounding machine and defensive wizard Kennedy Meeks is out for at least two weeks with a bone bruise on his knee and in his absence, head coach Roy Williams is going to be heavily reliant on Theo Pinson and Isaiah Hicks to step up in his place. Given how Meeks, a junior from Charlotte, ranks second on the team with 7.4 rebounds per game and has posted 12.3 points while shooting 59.5 percent from the field, one can see why it is vitally important for Johnson to truly establish himself as a dominant force under the basket while the inexperienced Pinson and Hicks learn the ropes alongside him.
Johnson should have no problem upping his production, being 6-foot-9, 228 pounds. It’s a far cry from Meeks’ 6-foot-9, 265 pound frame, but the hard truth is that you can’t teach dominant rebounding in the fashion of Johnson.
More importantly, let’s not forget that UNC’s hopes are not absolutely sunk if the team loses to Tulane and UCLA this week. The Tar Heels’ record stands at 7-2 right now, good for sixth in the fast and furious ACC, and the season is still young enough that Williams has plenty of time to stay the course while Meeks recovers.
On top of that, it’s not like losing to unranked or lower-ranked non-conference opponents is absolutely devastating under any and all circumstances. Lose to an unranked squad one time and it’s “Alright, just bad luck,” lose to one a second time and it’s “Well, that didn’t look very good there,” and a third or fourth time in less than two months is a legitimate cause for concern.
Which is why Johnson needs to to royally step up his game in Meeks’ absence. Next in the rebounding department after Meeks in terms of production are Pinson and Justin Jackson, with Pinson more of a wing and Jackson more acclimated to being part of the scoring attack as opposed to an interior player. Johnson is a conscientious player with a strong basketball IQ and his adjustments should be minimal, but he has to go out on the floor this week and do all he can to be the second half of the 1-2 punch along with star point guard Marcus Paige.
Simply put, Johnson has to just do what he does already but at a stronger level. Sure, it’d be nice for Pinson, Jackson and Hicks to step up immediately, but losing Meeks won’t be an easy fix. Let Johnson take control of the rebounding game, and UNC should get back on track.
However, if he stumbles, the Tar Heels are going to have to make some major adjustments with the start of conference play on the horizon.
*Featured Photo (above) credit to USA TODAY Sports