PHILADELPHIA — A little over a month ago, as royal blue chaos reigned amid a stunned Tar Heel blue crowd at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., Brice Johnson's body sank to the floor. His effort against Duke had been borderline heroic. He had risen above an undersized Blue Devil front line all game long. Yet here he was, dejected, needing a teammate to drag him off the ground.
That's because Johnson's 29 points and 19 rebounds that night were only one half of the game's crucial mismatch. It was the other half that Duke exploited to pull off a stunning upset.
Heading into Friday's Sweet 16 showdown with No. 5 seed Indiana, North Carolina faces a familiar challenge. The Hoosiers will present a puzzle similar to the one that the Tar Heels failed to solve in that February loss to Duke.
North Carolina's strength is its frontcourt. Johnson is the best forward in college basketball. He, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks all are traditional big men, and all command significant playing time. Throw in center Joel James and freshman power forward Luke Maye, and throughout the year Carolina played over 85 percent of its minutes with two true bigs on the floor.
With basketball at every level trending towards skill and quickness over size, especially at the ‘four' position, Roy Williams' team faced plenty of mismatches all year. Oftentimes it didn't matter; Carolina overwhelmed inferior opponents with its athleticism. On other occasions, the Tar Heels used the mismatch to their advantage. Johnson and Hicks dominated many a stretch-four on the offensive glass, just as they did against Duke.
But against elite four-guard offenses, the Tar Heels had trouble. Notre Dame burned them for 1.19 points per possession in an 80-76 upset. The foremost example was the 74-73 loss to Duke that in so many ways should have been a UNC win.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski crafted an offensive gameplan to exploit Carolina's two-big lineups. With Derryck Thornton, Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Brandon Ingram surrounding center Marshall Plumlee, Duke ran set after set to get the ball in the hands of whomever was guarded by UNC's power forward.
Early on, Williams decided to go with 6'8 small forward Justin Jackson on the 6'9 Ingram, while Johnson (6'10) was assigned to Matt Jones (6'5). Jones, while a good shooter, isn't a slasher. The thought likely was that Johnson would have the length to close out on Jones' three-pointers, and Jones wouldn't have the quickness to constantly blow by Johnson.
Midway through the first half though, Jones left the game with an ankle injury. Even before the injury, when Jones exited the game, Williams decided to keep his ‘four' — at this moment, Isaiah Hicks — on Jones' replacement, Kennard. Right away, it was evident UNC was in trouble.
Kennard is known primarily as a long-range threat. Hicks had to honor that threat, so Kennard, a 6'5 wing, beat the 235-pound power forward with a quick first step on multiple occasions.
Hicks even had to chase Kennard around screens, and simply couldn't.
When Johnson re-entered the game alongside Hicks in another two-big lineup, Williams switched his All-American onto Ingram, and gave Kennard to Jackson or backup small forward Theo Pinson. Duke immediately ran a play to isolate Ingram against Johnson at the top of the key, and Ingram scored with ease.
Possession after possession, Duke attacked Carolina's forwards off the dribble. After the Blue Devils deviated from the plan during a second-half stretch, Krzyzewski called a timeout with his team down by eight and the clock showing 6:49. Out of the timeout, he went right back to Ingram, who beat Hicks off the bounce and incited a run that led Duke to victory.
Indiana poses the same problem
Against Indiana Friday night, Johnson and Hicks will once again face matchup nightmares. Indiana starts Troy Williams, a freakishly athletic wing, at the ‘four.' Hoosiers coach Tom Crean has used Williams all season to destroy opposing two-big lineups. Against Maryland on the final day of the regular season, Williams scored 23 points, many of which came against Terrapins power forward Robert Carter.
Williams is a downhill player who seems to be incessantly out of control. He's significantly quicker than Johnson. Roy Williams won't have much choice though. If Carolina charges Jackson or Pinson with guarding Williams, 6'7 wing Collin Hartman will also give Johnson and Hicks fits. Indiana even used Williams and Hartman in a three-four pick-and-pop against Maryland, and Carter wasn't quick enough to recover.
Johnson, though perhaps quicker than Carter, won't have the lateral foot speed to recover either.
So what can Carolina do?
The thing about mismatches is that they are rarely one-way streets. For every edge Indiana has at the ‘four' when it has the ball, Johnson's height and vertical athleticism give him a similar edge on the other end of the floor.
"I have to be able to step out and guard those guys," Johnson said of the matchup Thursday. "But on the other end, I have to be able to impose my will and do what I need to do in the post."
Carolina led for the majority of the game against Duke because Johnson was able to do this. He was nothing short of dominant on the boards, where he pulled down seven offensive rebounds. The Tar Heels as a team recouped 44 percent of their own missed shots.
They were also occasionally able to work the size advantage into their first-shot offense. This actually comes off an offensive rebound, but here's Meeks using his body to best Ingram in the post:
Carolina's offense sputtered late because it turned a blind eye to its one major strength. Down the stretch, the ball stopped going in to Johnson, Hicks and Meeks. This decision from Nate Britt — to take a contested 19-foot jumper while Isaiah Hicks rolls free on the weak side — should make any coach fume:
So should this, from Marcus Paige:
And this, from Joel Berry:
On all three plays, Plumlee has Johnson, so either Hicks or Meeks is matched up with Ingram. On two of the three, the matchup is on the block.
Throughout those two hours in Chapel Hill, Roy Williams had a decision hanging over his head. Should he stick with his strength, even if it in turn also becomes a weakness? Or should he sacrifice that strength to mitigate the effect of the corollary weakness? If the choice was the former, he had to make a concerted effort to play to that strength. Carolina didn't do that, and lost.
Friday, Roy Williams must make the decision again. The contrast at the ‘four' position will be even starker, and thus the respective advantages even greater. With both Hartman and Troy Williams in the game, Johnson could terrorize Indiana on the offensive glass. He will also have to guard one of them. There is no Matt Jones option here, as there was in the second Duke game.
Assuming UNC sticks with what it knows, it can't rely on Johnson to buy his scoring secondhand. It must incorporate him — or Meeks or Hicks, if Johnson draws Indiana center Thomas Bryant — into the offense by design.
Crean will then have his own decision to make. In OG Anunoby, he has a weapon to throw at Johnson, the likes of which Johnson may never have seen before. Anunoby's wingspan — somewhere between 7'2 and 7'6 — enables him to guard any position on the floor, one through five. He would be the best defensive antidote for Johnson.
More on OG Anunoby
More on OG Anunoby
But on the offensive end, Anunoby is still raw. By inserting him into the lineup to match up with Johnson, Crean would be sacrificing his team's advantage on the offensive end, and would let UNC off the hook for playing two bigs.
The way in which these intertwined factors balance each other out in Philadelphia will decide Friday's matchup. If Indiana and its potent offense spread Carolina out with shooting and exploit UNC's second big, the Tar Heels will be in trouble. It will then be imperative that they assert their rebounding superiority and feed Brice Johnson — something they've inexplicably strayed from at times in the past.