CHAPEL HILL – While his team is short-handed on the perimeter, North Carolina coach Roy Williams is finding reliable production when he goes to his bench.
Heading into tonight’s game against No. 11 Kentucky, the 18th-ranked Tar Heels are receiving steady scoring and rebounding from reserves Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks. It has been a big reason why the Tar Heels have beaten a pair of top-five opponents in the past month despite missing two key players due to NCAA eligibility concerns.
“It’s a big help just knowing that we don’t have our perimeter shooters out there,” Johnson said Friday. “... We have some scorers in there, it’s just you need more. It’s not enough. You need people to come off the bench to help you.
“It’s not just about five people. You need like five to 10 people that can go out there and help your team win.”
Williams has started 6-foot-10 sophomore Joel James alongside junior James Michael McAdoo up front, utilizing James’ size for interior defense and toughness. But while James is the better defender, both Johnson and Meeks are better offensively and are solid rebounders.
They’re providing the spark UNC (6-2) needs from its second unit with wing players P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald sitting out while the school and NCAA review their eligibility connected to offseason issues.
Williams isn’t likely to juggle his starting lineup for now, even though Johnson is the team’s No. 2 scorer at 13.6 points per game.
“I’m going to leave it alone,” Williams said. “If those guys start playing better defense, then Joel (James) better start scoring more. It’s a pretty simple thing. They’ve got to give you something. ... My whole thing is when you come into the game, give us something positive.”
As Kentucky coach John Calipari said Friday: “It really doesn’t matter where you get it from.”
“What you’d like to have is balanced scoring with five guys,” Calipari said. “You’d like to have a bench that adds energy; it may not be bench scoring. What if it’s bench defense and rebounding and assists? It’s not just points.”
To Calipari’s point, the teams have similar offensive numbers even though Kentucky’s production has been largely confined to its starting five.
Kentucky (8-2) has four players averaging in double figures with a fifth averaging 9.1 points per game but had a combined two bench points in last week’s loss to Baylor and Tuesday’s win against Boise State.
UNC has three players averaging in double figures with two more averaging at least 8.5 points.
For the Tar Heels, at least, the production from Johnson and Meeks has been a desperately needed boost for a team missing Hairston’s 15-point average from last season as well as outside shooting from both Hairston and McDonald.
Johnson, a lean 6-9 sophomore, has a soft touch with his hook shot or turnaround jumper to go with his 6.9 rebounds per game. He’s failed to reach double figures just once, when he scored eight in the loss at UAB while battling foul trouble.
The 6-9, 290-pound Meeks is averaging 8.5 points and 6.6 rebounds in about 14 minutes per game, and came up big in the wins against then-No. 3 Louisville and former No. 1 Michigan State.
The freshman had 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists against the reigning national champion Cardinals, then had 15 points and seven rebounds in the road upset of the Spartans.
North Carolina will need more of the same to get another marquee nonconference win in its up-and-down start to the year.
“They’re giving us great energy when they come in and both of them are terrific rebounders so they’ve given us a lot so far,” sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “We’re hoping to see that continue.”