Seeking A Spark

PITTSBURGH -- J.P. Tokoto shed his uniform, sat down in the visitor's locker room at the Petersen Events Center and prepared for the questions.

He had, for the second-straight week, watched No. 12 North Carolina's starters take the floor without him. He had, Saturday afternoon in UNC's lopsided 89-76 loss to unranked Pittsburgh, scored four points in 24 minutes. And now he had, for another week, faced a question about his role, and coach Roy Williams's lineup, and where Tokoto fit in it, starter or not.

“I’m not going to let it kill me," the junior wing said. "This is the second week in a row I’ve gotten that question, and my answer is still gonna be the same.

"It’s basketball. Coach made a decision.”

Tokoto isn't an arbitrary target. He has company in Kennedy Meeks, the svelter, more imposing big man who has compiled seven double-doubles in 25 games this season. Meeks finished with 15 points Saturday, second only to Brice Johnson's 19 among UNC scorers. But he, too, sat on the bench for the opening tip.

And so UNC has operated since a dispiriting Feb. 2 home loss to then-No. 3 Virginia, after which Williams ran practices with sophomore guard Nate Britt starting in place of Tokoto and sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks in place of Meeks.

The experiment passed its first test a week ago, a 79-68 win at Boston College. Hicks had a career-high 21 points. Tokoto hit seven of eight free-throws, helping UNC preserve a tenuous lead. But the gambit flatlined Saturday: Hicks had just five points in 18 minutes, and Tokoto continued to look off-kilter. Joel Berry, the freshman guard who returned against Boston College after missing seven games with a pulled groin, replaced Britt in Saturday's second-half starting five. Berry played 28 minutes, scored eight points and was 2-for-6 from the field.

Meeks, meanwhile, appeared to give UNC at least some semblance of hope for an offensive surge that could offset Pittsburgh's pyrotechnics. “Our offense wasn’t terrible," Marcus Paige said. "We weren’t in a great rhythm, but we got the ball to Brice and Kennedy down low and scored.”

Meeks played 19 minutes — nine fewer than Berry and more than four minutes shy of his season average.

The shuffling started early, and followed often. With Pittsburgh leading 10-2 just 4:21 after the opening tip, Williams took a hatchet to his lineup, summoning Tokoto, and forwards Joel James and Jackson Simmons to replace Britt, Johnson and Meeks. Little more than two minutes later, Johnson, Meeks and Britt returned to the court for Paige, Simmons and James. All but two of UNC's players who dressed Saturday, Simmons and James, saw at least 16 minutes of action. Williams needed to find someone, anyone, who could stanch the bleeding.

“He was just looking for guys to step up and bring a spark to the game, pick up the defensive intensity," Britt said.

Williams's challenge figured to be lobbed directly at Meeks and his post accomplice Johnson. For after UNC's win Jan. 24 against Florida St., in which Meeks and Johnson combined for 30 points and 21 rebounds, Williams demurred when asked whether his big men had fulfilled their potential. He was not ready to anoint them as the second coming, Williams said, thanks to one area in which they both conspicuously lacked.

"The defense stinks," he said.

It was pungent again Saturday, when Meeks had Johnson had little answer to the bruising attack of Sheldon Jeter — who led all scorers with 22 points on 10-for-14 shooting — or the drives of guards James Robinson and Cameron Wright, who sliced and shot their way to a combined 27 points.

They looked as dynamic as Tokoto did not too long ago in that game against Florida St., when he hurdled his team's bench in an attempt to save a loose ball and added nine points. He says his playing time hasn't dipped, though he fell short Saturday of his season average by more than six minutes. He says his role, however nebulous that might seem now, doesn't matter.

“I’m going to keep playing whether I’m starting or not," Tokoto said. "It shouldn’t be anything big to anyone else. It shouldn’t even be a question. We’re playing basketball. We’re teammates. If one person starts over the other, it doesn’t mean necessarily that they’re better than them. They just deserve the spot more. It is what it is."

"Obviously, I’m not performing up to my ability, and he sees that," Tokoto said later of Williams. "He knows how to bring that out of me, and this is the way. Just gotta keep playing basketball.”

With that he answered a few more questions about UNC's defense before dressing for his team's departure into the snow outdoors. It wouldn't be the first storm he's endured this season, and it likely won't be his last.

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