We’re heading down the home stretch of the regular season in college basketball and the North Carolina Tar Heels have finally established a starting five and substitution rotation that seems to work for them. It’s pretty clear that Roy Williams has decided to stay small with his team and is clearly putting the responsibility of winning the remaining games on six players shoulders with junior Leslie McDonald being the sixth man in that equation.
Obviously, Roy isn’t only going to play six guys the entire game because everyone needs rest, but aside from the starters and McDonald, no one else has played double figure minutes consistently which means most of Roy’s subs are checking in for specific purposes. For example, Desmond Hubert and JP Tokoto may check in for a minute or two here and there to get some defensive stops and guys like Joel James and Jackson Simmons will come in for a couple of minutes in order to add height and get some rebounds. Every minute those guys play, even if it’s only four or five minutes total is valuable because it gives your playmakers a breather, but I think for the Tar Heels to make a run in the post season, they’ll need a consistent seventh guy in this newly tightened rotation to help get them over the top in close games. That guy is Brice Johnson.
Johnson has been both a revalation at times for the Tar Heels as well as a bit of a disppointment at times, but to me, he is going to be key down the stretch. The way the current lineup is configured, James Michael McAdoo is serving as Carolina’s lone big man down low logging major minutes. Brice Johnson, like McAdoo, is only 6-9 and too small to play a true center role, but his length and height in general are valuable in and of itself and will most certainly need to be utilized in the post season if the Tar Heels want to make any type of noise. We all know that any team is capable of beating anyone in college basketball if they can catch fire from three, but the teams that separate themselves are the ones that have dominant big men down low.
Johnson is in no way dominant down low, but he does have one thing that guys like James and Hubert, who play the center role, don’t have and that’s the ability to score consistently. Brice was much more of a consistent scorer during non conference play, but the ability and skill set is there. If you look at the Tar Heel bench behind McDonald, there are not a ton of scoring options at all, but role players more or less that can come in and play good defense or box out. With Johnson, you have 6.7 ppg and a guy that leads the team in field goal percentage at 54.5% to go with the height he naturally provides. Johnson is known for his quick release and soft touch around the basket and those tools help him score quickly off the bench. His game allows for him to be able to check in and not have to adjust to the flow of the game before being productive which sets him apart from guys like Joel James. That quick production is a great weapon to have if you’re Coach Williams and it’s a weapon that should be taken advantage of every night.
When you look at Brice’s line it shows that he’s averaging around 12 minutes a game, but since the inception of the small starting lineup with PJ Hairston, he’s averaged just a little over seven. Even with his current playing time, Brice is still seeing more minutes off the bench than everyone else with the exception of the aforementioned McDonald. I think for the Tar Heels to best utilize their potential, Johnson will need to creep back up to the 10-12 minute range. This way, he gives guys like JMM and Reggie Bullock a breather so that they’ll be good to go down the stretch of tight games which is when they will be absolutely unexpendable. The new lineup has shown both players an increase in minutes. McAdoo, in the last four games, has played just under 34 per game and Reggie has played just over 34 per game over the last four. Both players logged 36 and 35 minutes against NC State on Saturday respectively.
Too many times I’ve seen teams steam roll through the regular season with a tight rotation just to lose their legs and fall flat on their face down the stretch and into March. When the Tar Heels have won in the past under Roy, they’ve had tremendous depth heading into games. Both the 2005 and 2009 title teams both had at least 8 guys that could come in and contribute solid minutes whether they were starting or not. It’s clear that this team isn’t on the same level as either one of those championship teams, but the talent is there for them to make a run especially if the bench is a little deeper.
Brice Johnson does have a tendency to press when shots aren’t falling for him, but his upside far exceeds that risk. I think these last four games to close out the season will be crucial for Brice’s development and for the Tar Heels in general. Roy should make sure that Johnson is given an opportunity to prove he can be their valuable 7th guy heading into tournament play because if UNC plans on making a run, they will need him to play a slightly bigger role.