Through 18 games this season, Cameron Johnson has far and away been the Tar Heels’ best player and best offensive weapon. He’s shooting a blistering 46.8 percent on 3-point shots and averaging a team high 15.9 points per game. For the fifth time this season, he scored 20 or more points (he had a game-high 22). With apologies to Maye, who has been decent this season but inconsistent, it should be Johnson’s name appearing on the Wooden Award midseason top 25 list.
Johnson continued to show on Saturday that going forward, he needs to be the team’s lead option on the offensive end. He had a terrific bounce-back game in terms of shooting, making 5 of 7 from three after going collectively 0-for-7 in North Carolina’s last two games. Johnson’s quick release and seemingly limitless range, combined with his 6-foot-9 frame, allow him to shoot over most players before they can close out on him. UNC hasn’t been winning games with its defense this season, so the team will need Johnson to continue to fill it up from deep to win games.
Defensive struggles continue
This North Carolina team is not nationally known for its defense, probably for good reason. The team's struggles continued against Miami, as the Tar Heels allowed the Hurricane guards to get into the lane. UNC then lacked the rim protection to stop the guards once they got there. As good as sophomore forward Garrison Brooks has been for UNC, he’s still only 6-foot-9 playing against starting centers and hasn’t shown to be much of a shot blocker so far — he's averaging less than one block per game. In fact, North Carolina’s only block against Miami came on a Nassir Little chase down on Dejan Vasiljevic in the closing minutes of the game.
Little might be the best shot blocker on the team, and he’s certainly the most athletic player. However, most of his defensive plays come from chase downs or weak-side help. He can’t act as a deterrent on the interior while covering opposing guards on the perimeter.
Speaking of perimeter defense, Miami shot 50 percent from three in the first half for 21 points. That cratered in the second half as UNC tightened the clamps on the outside shot, but this led to the Hurricanes taking the ball to the rim to score 24 points in the paint in the final 20 minutes of play. North Carolina came out with a win because Miami had its defensive issues as well, but without a real paint protector, UNC needs its guards to step up on that end.
It’s a tricky proposition to close out hard on shooters without allowing the ball handler to blow by, but then again it’s difficult to win basketball games in general. If UNC wants to prove it belongs in the upper echelon of the ACC, the team will need to start doing exactly that as the season goes on.
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