In a span of less than 30 seconds early in North Carolina’s 84-82 loss at Texas on Saturday, Brice Johnson scored his first points and committed his first foul in a familiar sequence that foreshadowed what was to come.
Johnson, the senior forward who is one of the Tar Heels’ most important offensive players, finished with 12 more points – including the two that tied the game at 82 with eight seconds to play. Yet those points came amid three fouls, all of them early, that limited his playing time and effectiveness.
Johnson’s inability to avoid fouls changed the dynamic of the game. It made UNC’s task more difficult, and forced it to rely on other post players who, like Johnson, struggle at times to defend without fouling.
Nine games into a young season the Tar Heels are again faced with an important question, just as they were last season: Can their big men avoid foul trouble long enough for them to maximize their potential? It’s a critical question for Johnson, especially.
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The “good Brice, bad Brice” dichotomy that flusters UNC coach Roy Williams has long become familiar. Good Brice is the one capable of scoring at will, the one whose energy remains high and properly channeled. Bad Brice, meanwhile, emerged in the first half at Texas.
Johnson committed his first foul 73 seconds into the game on Saturday. He committed his second less than four minutes into the game, and that one had Williams substituting Isaiah Hicks, the junior forward, for Johnson, who then spent the next three minutes on the bench.
When Johnson returned, it took him 53 seconds to commit his third foul.
“I don’t know,” Johnson said later of that one, his third. “I’m going to have to look and see what happened. I can’t remember.”
The ripples of Johnson’s foul trouble on Saturday spread into several aspects of the Tar Heels’ defeat. It affected Williams’ substitution pattern and the game plan he’d developed. Undoubtedly, Johnson’s foul trouble played a role in the Tar Heels’ rebounding woes.
UNC entered Saturday among the best rebounding teams in the country, and Texas had ranked 195th nationally in rebounding margin. Yet the Longhorns generated 16 offensive rebounds to UNC’s four, and Texas outscored UNC 21-7 in second-chance points.
“Well it does throw us off,” Williams said of Johnson’s foul trouble. “But Isaiah did some good things.”
Hicks did, indeed – especially offensively. He finished with 14 points and made eight of his 10 attempts at the free throw line. Yet his first rebound didn’t come until about four minutes remained in the game.
Johnson, meanwhile, had to adjust his own defensive approach amid the foul trouble. Fifteen of his 20 minutes of playing time came in the second half, and he managed to play those 15 minutes without committing a foul.
Again, though, Williams spoke afterward of the need to defend without committing fouls. That has been a point of emphasis for the past two seasons, and while Johnson has committed fouls at a rate greater than any other UNC starting player, he’s not alone when it comes to quickly collecting fouls.
Johnson last season committed one foul about every 8.4 minutes of playing time. Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward, committed a foul every 8.8 minutes last year during his sophomore season. And Hicks, one of UNC’s top reserves, committed a foul every 5.9 minutes.
Through nine games this season, Johnson and Meeks lead the team in fouls with 24 each. Hicks has continued to foul at a greater rate, but all three players rank among the top 15 in the ACC in fouls per 40 minutes, according to data on website kenpom.com.
Louisville, which has three players in the top 11, is the only other conference team with three players among the top 15 in that category. The Tar Heels’ foul problems in the frontcourt make managing a game more challenging for Williams, and make it more difficult, too, to defend without hesitation.
Hicks and Meeks both finished the game at Texas with four fouls, one short of a disqualification. The Longhorns, meanwhile, scored their final four points after they’d rebounded misses – a fitting finish to a game decided by Texas’ ability to generate second-chance points.
For Johnson, the game was especially frustrating given his continued attempts to avoid foul trouble. He fouled out of five games last season and has made it through nine without fouling out of one to start this season.
Yet fouls, again, limited him on Saturday. And so he was left afterward with a familiar feeling of despair and frustration amid a problem that continues to linger.
“It hurts in a big way,” Johnson said.