Just when North Carolina Tar Heels fans thought things couldn’t get any worse, with guard P.J. Hairston gone and falling to a record of 8-3 before ACC has even begun, starting center Joel James will miss two weeks as a result of a sprained MCL that he suffered in last week’s game against the Texas Longhorns.
James is a sophomore listed as a forward, but has started at the center position in all of the Tar Heels’ games this season. This 6-foot-10 big man has played a significant role on the rebounding end, which takes some of the slack off of James Michael McAdoo, who has struggled to really get going in this young season. Although James plays the least amount of minutes out of all the starters, with only about 12.5 minutes per game, his presence in the frontcourt, along with McAdoo, poses many issues for opposing teams. The Tar Heels are not that strong of a rebounding team to begin with, and the two have only combined for about 10 rebounds per game. If the team has any hopes of improving that stat, it is vital that James is back in the lineup.
Luckily for the Tar Heels, sophomore forward Brice Johnson has filled into the starting role quite nicely. The forward currently leads the team in rebounds with about seven per game, and has been a major factor defensively. Even before James’ injury, Johnson received more playing time, with about 20 minutes per game, and always seemed to come up with a huge block or momentum-changing dunk late in games. His most prominent moment of the season thus far has been his monstrous alley-oop dunk to seal the game against the Kentucky Wildcats, which caused the entire Dean E. Smith Center to shake in excitement.
The Tar Heels hope to have James back for the beginning of their ACC schedule, which is on Jan. 5 against Wake Forest, but until then, Johnson will have to step up and continue to produce during the team’s next two non-conference games against Northern Kentucky and North Carolina-Wilmington.
There is even a huge chance that Johnson can steal the starting position from James for the remainder of the season, but having the extra big body in the Tar Heels’ lineup could only mean good things moving forward. The team’s backcourt is already showing that they could carry the team, with sophomore guard Marcus Paige and forward J.P. Tokoto embracing the spotlight, so it is now up to the frontcourt to come down with vital rebounds and strong defensive plays in order to help balance out the team as they near the most important part of their season.