CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Following North Carolina’s test run without Kennedy Meeks in the lineup on Wednesday, Brice Johnson accurately described his pairing with Isaiah Hicks in the frontcourt.
“With Isaiah in there, it’s like having another one of me in there,” Johnson said.
That statement is true on several levels. Both forwards are long and athletic, capable of soaring dunks and towering alley oops. Both serve as energy tanks and both are bursting with potential, even late in their Tar Heel careers.
“The two of us in there at the same time is kind of scary because we can both run around and jump really well,” Johnson said.
The similarities do not end on the offensive end, which is where the problem arises. Meeks, who is sidelined at least two weeks with a bone bruise in his left knee, helps to mask Johnson’s defensive deficiencies in the starting lineup. Senior center Joel James, who started in Meeks’ place on Wednesday, fills that role in part, despite his limitations.
Johnson’s defensive woes have followed him throughout his UNC career. Even on a night in which he set a career high in points, his head coach could not mention one aspect without a nod to the other.
“Twenty-five points and 10 rebounds, I like that, but he’s got to play better defensively and he knows it,” Roy Williams said.
Hicks is built from a similar mold, albeit with slight differences.
“They’re both more mobile, they both cover a lot of ground and they’re both extremely athletic,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “I would say, traditionally, they’re prone to more defensive mistakes when they play together. I don’t know why that is or how that happens, but I think they did a pretty good job tonight. If they clean that up, then that’s a really dangerous duo for us to have on the court because they’re both so effective and efficient offensively.”
Paige does his homework. Johnson ranks 78th nationally, according to kenpom.com, in individual offensive efficiency. Hicks, despite averaging 17.3 minutes per game, ranks fifth.
The defensive statistics offer a contrasting viewpoint.
In attempting to pinpoint the pair’s defensive demise, Paige highlight breakdowns against high ball screens and high-low action.
“A lot of teams that we’ve struggled against have lifted the big guy that’s not involved in the pick-and-roll and made them spread the floor, and I think they’ve had difficulty covering that,” Paige said.
Johnson dismissed the notion that defense was the downside to that particular pairing.
“Isaiah and I can really cover up for each other well,” Johnson said. “If somebody’s getting beat, we can probably come from the other side and block it. We haven’t really been a liability yet, it’s just that we’ve got to keep playing. We’ve got to keep working at it in practice.”
During Meeks’ absence, the Johnson-Hicks duo offers the most promise and most frustration, depending on which end of the court they happen to be on. Their defensive growth, both individually and as a pair, as the season progresses will determine how much their strengths outweigh their weakness.
“Having them together, as long as they compete on the defensive end, is going to be big for us,” Paige said.