Fifth starter still a mystery for Tar Heels
The suspense for No. 20 North Carolina On Saturday didn’t come from anything that happened on the Smith Center floor against East Tennessee State – the Buccaneers scored just 12 first-half points in UNC’s 78-55 win.
Instead, the suspense came in the locker room right before the Tar Heels (7-2) took the court for warm-ups, when Coach Roy Williams wrote the starting lineup on the board.
Like most games this season, sophomore Desmond Hubert, freshman Joel James and freshman Brice Johnson didn’t find out until roughly 30 minutes before game time who would be starting in the frontcourt alongside junior Reggie Bullock and sophomore James Michael McAdoo.
For the first five games, it was Hubert. Then the team lost its first game against Butler, and Williams turned to Johnson. After that game, Williams went back to Hubert, and now James has gotten the nod in the last two games.
“We really don’t know until he puts that name on the board,” Johnson said.
Johnson had 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting against ETSU, but Williams said he was impressed with James’s defense against the Bucs. The coach indicated that the suspense over the lineup will continue.
“I’m not settled,” Williams said. “Because I’m not sold on anybody.”
Johnson has been the most productive offensively. The freshman has scored in double figures in four straight games, and for the season he’s averaging 9.4 points and 5.1 rebounds and shooting 64.5 percent in 14.1 minutes.
Williams has called Hubert the best defender of the group, and he leads the team in blocks with nine, though he’s been limited on the other end (1.1 points and 2.0 rebounds in 10.1 minutes).
James has played the most of the three, averaging 16.6 minutes and posting 4.1 points and 4.7 rebounds, though he also leads the team in fouls.
Hubert called it a healthy competition among the three forwards, and said it should motivate each player to get better.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking when he’s writing up there to see who gets the start,” Hubert said. “But eventually at the end of the day all three of us need to be prepared.”
Hubert received the first opportunity in the lineup because of his experience and his abilities in practice, but that hasn’t translated yet to game situations. He’s only scored more than two points once this season, and he didn’t play more than seven minutes in a recent four-game span.
“It’s all about being confident in your yourself,” Hubert said. “Hopefully eventually I’ll get it going.”
Hubert expected that Williams would want a set lineup heading into conference play next month. James said his attitude wouldn’t change when someone finally wins the spot.
“We all play for the same team, so it doesn’t matter,” James said. “If Des or Brice start, I’m going to be cheering them on from the bench and when I get in I’m going to play my hardest.”
Williams said it’s up to the players to determine who becomes the fifth starter.
“I don’t choose who starts,” Williams said. “They do.”