On January 10th North Carolina lost to the Miami Hurricanes 68-59 without senior center Reggie Johnson. In that match up the Heels were out played inside by Kenny Kadji and Julian Gamble who combined for 32 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocked shots. Miami took 26 three pointers in that contest with an effective inside out game and controlled the tempo, this time around Carolina faces a whole different animal with Johnson manning the paint.
Johnson stands a massive 6-10 292 lbs an imposing figure to which UNC has no easy answer. If you consider frame alone Joel James is the only big man on the Tar Heels roster who can match up physically but the freshman James has often committed silly mistakes on the defensive end and isn’t up to the task alone.
UNC will likely have to throw everything and everyone they’ve got at Johnson if they hope to contain him. Since returning from injury on January 23rd against Duke, Johnson has scored in double figures just once but he’s got it done on the boards. He’s likely to be a huge part of the game plan today. NC State succeeded in going right at James Michael McAdoo and causing early foul trouble that threw Carolina off balance, someone else is going to have to defend Johnson, UNC simply cannot risk McAdoo getting into foul trouble.
This is a game in which the Tar Heels desperately need Desmond Hubert to come up big. Given the fact that McAdoo is too big of a risk for the assignment and Brice Johnson is far too skinny to even attempt it’s up to Hubert and James. Hubert is the teams best interior defender and James has the bulk.
Roy Williams has been going with Jackson Simmons a lot lately and I expect that trend to continue against a Miami team with a lot of depth inside. Simmons plays smart basketball and should do a serviceable job on Gamble or Kadji, but that still begs the question who and how will UNC stop Johnson?
I suggest a two pronged approach, the hack a Johnson strategy can work if the bigs stay out of foul trouble and the game is close in the second half. For the rest of the time the bigs needs to have the most active game of the season trapping Reggie the minute he gets the ball and taking him out of the game. This strategy comes with inherit risks, the most obvious risk when trapping a player in the half court is the fact that somebody is left open. The other is Carolina’s season long struggles at effectively communicating in the half court with one another.
Everything is going to have to go right for UNC to pull off the upset against a Miami team that might just be the best team in the country right now (more on that in our game preview). The biggest test both figuratively and literally lies inside the paint.