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UNC Basketball: Cameron Johnson and Kevin Knox revisited

Should the Heels look back at this spring in fondness or disappointment?

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

UNC knew that they had zero reasons to celebrate this past weekend against Notre Dame. One could argue the only reason they won the game is that the referees blew a goaltending call earlier in the contest, and when T.J. Gibbs drove to the basket, missed, and then had the ball bounce its out of the cylinder on the put-back, the ball refused to lie. The Heels were able to breathe a sigh of relief, but no win this year has ever felt more like a loss.

In the case of Cameron Johnson, it had been one of his worst nights in Carolina blue. He went 2-10 from the floor, and only managed to get one of his five three-point attempts to go into the basket. After returning to the Triangle following the game, Roy Williams handed out grades to each player and gave Johnson an F. Cameron knew exactly why, and there were two things he could do about it: handle it poorly or hit the gym the next day and get better. Thankfully for all of us, he opted for the latter.

Tuesday night Johnson had arguably his best game in the Dean Smith Center since he played for Pitt, shooting 7-10 from the field and draining six of his nine three-point attempts. He finished the game with 21 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists and led the team in scoring for the first time so far this season. Roy’s tough love produced results, and it’ll be exciting to see if he will be able to find some consistency coming off of such a strong performance against a good team in Clemson. A lot of that will also depend on how his teammates have adjusted to him being in the lineup now as well, as there were some struggles early on getting him the ball where he likes it on the floor and adjusting to his style of play in general.

There was a bit of irony to what happened Tuesday night, because just south of the state border former UNC target Kevin Knox was in Columbia, South Carolina taking on the Gamecocks. Knox was not having quite as good of a night as he has had previous nights, finishing the game with 21 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists. He shot 6-16 from the field, 1-8 from three, and played 39 of the game’s 40 minutes. To compare, Cameron Johnson was on the court for 28 minutes in the game against Clemson.

The part of Cameron Johnson’s story that may not still be with UNC fans is that Kentucky recruited Johnson when he had plans of transferring out of Pitt. The Wildcats needed another shooter in addition to Knox, and also needed some form of veteran presence on the roster. Johnson chose UNC, and what Kentucky was left with was a team that, while still being a good team, isn’t nearly as strong as the teams they’ve had in recent years.

The concern for UNC in particular was whether or not failing to get Kevin Knox would leave a mark on the 2017-18 season. When they managed to get Cameron Johnson, a lot of analysts not only considered him to be the next best thing, but potentially even better. A player that has played in the ACC for three years already, has proven abilities at the college level, and will likely play two years without an early exit to the NBA draft is a deal anybody around the country would take in a heartbeat. The only question was whether or not the production would actually be there.

The short answer is: yes. Though Cameron Johnson missed almost the entire non-conference schedule, he has been able to produce extremely similar numbers to Kevin Knox. Johnson is currently averaging 17.4 points per 40 minutes, as well as 8.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists. He is shooting 43% from the field, while shooting 39% from three — both percentages being fairly close to what he shot at Pitt.

On the other side, Kevin Knox currently is averaging 18 points per 40 minutes, as well as 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He is shooting 44% from the field, and has made 30% of his three-point attempts.

If there is one thing that is important to note if you find yourself wanting to brag to your friends or relatives that root for Kentucky it’s that UNC’s strength of schedule is ranked No. 2 in the nation according to ESPN, while Kentucky’s SOS is ranked 21st. So, one could make the argument that Cameron Johnson is producing well against tougher competition than Knox. Inversely, the argument could be made that Johnson only faced roughly half of UNC’s opponents so far this year.

What we do know is that UNC has been just fine without Kevin Knox. Whether or not Kentucky feels the same way about Cameron Johnson is a good question to ask your nearest Big Blue Nation point of contact.