An uneven effort still ends with an 83-68 Tar Heel win over Wake Forest. Here is what we learned.
Brice Johnson continues to be really good
Nothing smooths out those low scoring games like bouncing back with 27 points.
Johnson has had two forgettable games in ACC play and in two other games he has scored 39 and 27 points. The latter happened tonight and coupled with 11 rebounds again carried the Tar Heels on a night when Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson continue to struggle. It was the fifth 20+ point outing of the season and the second time in four games he has hit 11 free throws in a game.
Much like the Florida State game this was a complete effort on both ends. Ten of Johnson's rebounds were on the defensive end to go along with two blocks and three steals. Offensively, Johnson scored almost at will with a variety of moves around the basket. When he went to the free throw line he was nearly automatic hitting 11 shots on 12 attempts. Johnson also matched a season high in usage with a %Poss of 32.
Twice this season Johnson has followed a single digit scoring game with a double-double and at least 15 points. Granted it would be better to not have to bounce back at all but with Johnson there is little fear one bad game will become more than that.
Paige struggles carry over for a third game
This will be the storyline everyone will write about but in reality there isn't much Roy Williams or the players can say. Paige is clearly a good player and over the past four years has shown he can light the scoreboard up on any given night. While the current slump could be a point of concern it is probably more on the weird side than anything else. Players of his caliber might have a game or two like Paige has had lately at random points but not three straight.
As far as this game goes, Paige looked a little closer to the mark. Two of his three point shots rimmed out and a third hit back iron. Even shots inside the arc didn't seem to want to go in including the only basket he made on the night. Paige drove into the lane and got a finger roll shot off that hit the front of the rim and crawl into the basket. Not the ideal way to end a drought of 15 straight missed shots but at that point you take what you can get.
Williams said there was no player in 28 years he had more confidence in than Marcus Paige. Translation: Roy doesn't seemed worried about it. It is difficult to imagine the slump continuing on much longer. There is also an element of better now than later in the ACC schedule when the games are tougher. At some point Paige will shake off the current shooting woes and return to form. As long as the struggles don't cost UNC a game, it really doesn't matter.
Free throw shooting continues to be a boost
On a night when the shots from the floor stopped falling, the free throw shooting was there to keep the offense afloat. In particular, UNC is presently enjoying the benefit of having post players who can hit free throws. Johnson's 11-12 night at the line was his second game of the season with at least 11 made free throws. On the season he is shooting 80% while Isaiah Hicks is at 78%. Johnson and Hicks are combining to draw 11.5 fouls per forty minutes. Those fouls have been a steady source of points and also pressure the defense with foul problems.
As a team, UNC has been 70% or better at the free throw line in all six ACC games and is 32nd nationally at 74.4% for the season. Anyone paying attention to UNC basketball knows what a nightmare the 2013 and 2014 seasons were from a free throw shooting perspective. Games were lost thanks to terrible free throw shooting. Last season, UNC improved to 70% and this season the Tar Heels made another jump in productivity led by Johnson and Hicks.
The only complaint at this stage is UNC's overall free throw rate is still below the national average at 34.9. Some of that can be explained that UNC gets transition looks and isn't in a position to be fouled. The other factor is UNC's guards aren't getting to the line. Joel Berry's ACC only free throw rate is 43.3 but Paige is at 17.6 in ACC games. As good as UNC has been offensively this season, there is still room for improvement. Getting more chances at the line for UNC's other two 80% free throw shooters might just be the key.