Tag: Brice Johnson

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While a major question remains unanswered, No. 4 North Carolina can be special in 2015-16

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LOS ANGELES — There’s no denying the fact that the 2014-15 season was a difficult one for North Carolina head coach Roy Williams. There was the passing of his friend and mentor Dean Smith, and there was also the NCAA investigation that’s still ongoing. Add in the fact that his team didn’t truly hit its stride until March, and Williams certainly had his hands full throughout the 2014-15 campaign.

North Carolina’s season came to an end Thursday night in the Sweet 16, as they fell 79-72 to West regional champion No. 1 Wisconsin, but the finish to the season is something that Williams and his players can build on this offseason. The Tar Heels hung with the Badgers throughout, but a couple key lapses on the defensive end proved costly down the stretch. Wisconsin rebounded nearly 39 percent of its misses Thursday night, and while the Badgers scored just ten second-chance points having to defend Bo Ryan’s team for longer stretches than one would want can add up over the course of a game.

North Carolina played arguably its best basketball of the season in March, winning three games in Greensboro before falling in the ACC tournament final to Notre Dame and then beating Harvard and Arkansas to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012. Outside of center Desmond Hubert, who missed the final 16 games due to a torn ACL, everyone should be back next season led by guard Marcus Paige, wing Justin Jackson and big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.

With that being the case the Tar Heels will be one of the early favorites in the ACC. And as we’ve seen, being a favorite in the ACC means that you’re a national title contender as well.

“If you think about it, you take away six minutes in the Notre Dame game and we would have had a great run here in the end, but you can’t take away the six minutes,” Williams said following Thursday’s defeat. “You take away the 7- or 9-0 stretch (in the second half), and we had a great run today.

“I want them to use this as fuel. The little lapses that Justin mentioned and that I mentioned to a failed boxout here or missed free throw there were important,” Williams continued. “And if we can take care of those little lapses, then we’ve got a chance to be one of those teams that has a chance to talk about winning the whole thing.”

The biggest development for North Carolina was the growth displayed by some of their supplementary options, with Johnson and Meeks being two of those players. While Meeks was hobbled by a sprained knee suffered against Arkansas Johnson played well against Wisconsin, accounting for 15 points and four rebounds despite playing just 22 minutes due to foul trouble. Both players made noticeable strides this season, with Johnson (13.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg) raising his scoring and rebounding averages by nearly three points and two rebounds per game and Meeks (11.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg) improving his scoring by nearly four points per contest while also being able to play more minutes.

Receiving increased offense from those two, not to mention the freshman Jackson (10.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.3 apg), ensured that North Carolina would have a fighting chance against quality competition on nights in which Paige wasn’t at his best offensively. Against Wisconsin the junior guard scored six of his 12 points in the final two minutes, with the shots keeping the Heels within striking distance, but it was the play of players such as Johnson and Jackson (15 points) that kept North Carolina afloat.

That should only help the program moving forward, as a more potent rotation means that Paige won’t be required to save the day as often as he has in the past. What will also help North Carolina is the bond they managed to create in the midst of what was a tough season for reasons both on and off the court.

“It was a tough year for us as a program and for coach especially with everything that happened,” Paige said. “But we have a great group of kids that enjoy being around each other more so than my freshman year, more so than last year. And we’re going to have a lot of the same kids next year.

“It hurts for the seniors because they don’t get another opportunity at this, and in college it goes so fast in those four years. You only get four cracks at it,” Paige continued. “Obviously it hurts right now because we’re such a close group of guys. But for the guys that do get to come back next year, we’re going to try to come together even more as a team and try to execute better and make something special out of it.”

North Carolina had to navigate a lot this season, including multiple injuries and an NCAA inquiry that has yet to be completed, but by the end still managed to finish a couple plays away from the Elite Eight. And the status of that NCAA inquiry will have an impact on what the Tar Heels are able to do next season.

But even with that cloud hovering over the program, with no one having much of an idea as to what will happen, the players can’t control that. What they can control is how they prepare for 2015-16, a year in which much will be expected of them. The depth and talent are there for North Carolina to put together a special season. What the Tar Heels do this offseason will determine whether or not that turns out to be the case.

No. 4 Duke survives No. 15 North Carolina in a thriller

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Tyus Jones had 22 points, eight assists and seven boards and Quinn Cook added 22 points as No. 4 Duke knocked off No. 15 North Carolina, 92-90, in overtime on Wednesday night.

The Tar Heels were down 49-36 late in the first half, but they used a 41-18 run over the course of about 15 minutes to take a commanding, 77-67 lead. But Duke came storming back, led by Jones, who made big shot after big shot down the stretch. With Duke down 81-76 with less than a minute left, Jones finished an and-one, and after Brice Johnson missed the front-end of a one-and-one, Jones scored with 27 seconds left to tie the game and force overtime.

In the extra fame, Justise Winslow drew the fifth foul on Brice Johnson, who had 18 points and 12 boards, on Duke’s first possession. Jahlil Okafor was slowed with an ankle injury and finished with “just” 12 points, 13 boards and three assists, but he had a pair of critical buckets, backing down Kennedy Meeks and scoring through him.

North Carolina is going to leave Cameron Indoor Stadium as frustrated as they’ve been all season long. The Tar Heels put together about as good of a performance as you are going to see out of them this season despite the fact that their star, Marcus Paige, finished with just five points on 2-for-11 shooting on the night.

Duke blitzed UNC early, but beginning late in the first half and throughout the second 20 minutes, the Heels absolutely dominated Duke on the glass, getting 19 offensive rebounds despite going the first 12 minutes of the game without one. UNC’s four big men — Meeks, Johnson, Joel James and Isaiah Hicks — combined for 54 points and 27 boards, completely controlling the lane. It’s not easy to come back on Duke anywhere, let alone in a rocking Cameron Indoor Stadium, and North Carolina did just that, putting themselves in a position where they should have left with a season-defining win.

But ill-timed turnovers and costly missed free throws eventually did them in.

On the other hand, Duke will take this win knowing that they escaped in a game they probably shouldn’t have won. North Carolina’s big men rendered Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson more or less ineffective defensively. Okafor’s ankle, which he rolled in the first half, was clearly bothering him, as he was even less mobile than usual defensively and limited on the offensive end of the floor.

The Blue Devils blew a 13-point lead, played their now-typically shoddy perimeter defense, shot 16-for-31 from the free throw line — Okafor was 0-for-6 — and gave up 19 offensive rebounds and still managed to win despite being down nine with 2:30 left.

You don’t complain about that.

New Year’s Resolutions: North Carolina Tar Heels

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Conference play is right around the corner, so over the course of the next two weeks, College Basketball Talk will be detailing what some of the country’s best, most intriguing, and thoroughly enigmatic teams should resolve to do with the New Year right around the corner. What can we say, we’re in a giving mood. Thank Jessica Simpson.

MORE: The rest of our New Year’s Resolutions | Midseason catchups

NORTH CAROLINA PROMISES TO: Continue to get more from Joel Berry II

  • It will happen because: In the last four games, freshman point guard Joel Berry II has seen a spike in action, logging 13.0 minutes per game. As noted in this piece on Marcus Paige’s offensive woes, the Tar Heels are in need of Berry or Nate Britt to step up and run the offense to shoulder some of the pressure put on Paige. On Saturday, Berry scored five points and dished out four assists in North Carolina’s 82-74 win over No. 12 Ohio State. Two of those dimes resulted in seven points for Paige. In the first setup, Berry drove into the lane in transition, attracting three defenders before finding the trailing Paige open on the left wing. Berry will be a better offensive option than fellow reserve point guard Nate Britt.
  • It won’t happen because: While the his performance against Ohio State is encouraging, it’s still a small sample size. Berry will have to continue this production in a larger role moving forward, in a conference that has talented guard play all around. Berry is also part of a bigger issue for North Carolina: its 3-point shooting. Berry is 3-of-16 shooting through the first 11 games.

NORTH CAROLINA ALSO SWEARS THEY WON’T: Struggle with perimeter scoring

  • It will happen because: Paige, who was not only being tabbed as a preseason All-American, but also a player of the year candidate, has seen his points per game and shooting percentages take a considerable dip this season. That is a byproduct of North Carolina’s lack of perimeter scoring options surrounding Paige. The Tar Heels are 47-of-165 from three with Paige hitting 25 of those shots. Defenses are not only keying in on Paige, they are packing the paint, which also makes it difficult for Kennedy Meeks to operate in the post. This can change if several highly-regarded freshman can pick up their production offensively. As mentioned above, Berry looked more comfortable in UNC’s win over Ohio State, which in return could have positive effects on Justin Jackson moving forward as suggested here.
  • It won’t happen because: North Carolina has only connected on 28 percent of its threes, as a team. The Tar Heels can improve on that end of the floor if someone else on the perimeter can become a consistent offensive threat, whether it be Berry or Jackson. If/when that does happen, will it before enough to push the Heels into title contention with the ACC’s elite teams. Duke, Louisville and Virginia — all in kenpom’s top 5 — posses some of the top defenses in the country, all holding opponents to under 28 percent from beyond the arc. North Carolina could have a second perimeter option emerge, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be enough for UNC to compete with the nation’s best.