Cameron Johnson expected to be ‘full go’ for UNC’s NCAA tourney opener

The graduate transfer forward has been nursing a sore back since the Tar Heels' ACC tournament final loss to Virginia last Saturday

UNC's Cameron Johnson drives the baseline against two Miami defenders during last week's ACC tournament (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

CHARLOTTE — If North Carolina’s opening round NCAA Tournament game against Lipscomb had been earlier in the week, coach Roy Williams said Tuesday that it’s doubtful Cameron Johnson would have played because of a sore back.

Good thing the game isn’t scheduled until Friday.

Not that Johnson would have missed it, either way.

“This is why I came here,” the graduate transfer from Pittsburgh said Thursday at Spectrum Center, where the second-seeded Tar Heels are preparing to begin defense of their 2017 national championship. “This is why everybody came here. We’ve got some guys that have been here before, and I’m excited to get going.”

Johnson’s status was thrown into question when he aggravated a back injury that forced him to sit out the final 6½ minutes of UNC’s ACC Tournament final loss to Virginia in Brooklyn on Saturday.

The 6-foot-8 forward was originally hurt two days earlier in a collision with a Miami player.

After undergoing treatment upon the team’s return to Chapel Hill, which included the suction therapy known as “cupping,” Johnson resumed practice on Wednesday. By Thursday afternoon, both he and Williams declared him fit and ready for action.

“I think at this time of the year, you need everybody that’s been important for you all year to function at a high level,” the UNC coach said. “Unless (Johnson is) laying back there on the floor (in the locker room) and I don’t know about it, I would feel that he would be fine. He’s important to us and I expect him to be full go.”

Johnson showed no signs of pain as he went through the Tar Heels’ public practice Thursday, running freely and shooting the ball with accuracy.

Because he had five days to recover between games, Johnson said he never considered the possibility of missing his team’s first NCAA Tournament game.

“I wasn’t really worried too much,” he said. “I didn’t think, ‘Oh man, am I going to be able to play Friday?’ I just took it day by day and tried to feel better, putting a lot of work into rehab with my trainers and just letting things play out as they do.”

Johnson has been a key element in UNC’s small lineup since returning from early season knee surgery on Dec. 20. He ranks third on the team in scoring at 11.4 points per game (13.3 in ACC play), had made 44 3-pointers in just 24 games and has been a much better rebounder than he was during his two seasons at Pitt, averaging 4.7 per game.

According to his teammates, though, his true value to the team can’t be measured simply by the numbers on a stat sheet.

“With Cam being on the floor, it’s another threat,” senior guard Theo Pinson said. “You have to be aware of him being on the floor, because he’s such a good shooter and he can open up the court.

“Even if he’s not moving well, with him being on the court, it opens up driving lanes because you don’t want to help off him. He will still knock down the shot. That’s not going anywhere. That’s big for us.”

It has the potential to be even more important against a Lipscomb team that averages better than 82 points per game and put up 106 in its Atlantic Sun Tournament championship win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Although the Bisons style would seem to make them a good matchup for the 25-10 Tar Heels, who also prefer an up-tempo, high-possession style, their ability to put the ball in the basket — and get to the free-throw line — makes them a potentially dangerous opponent despite their No. 15 seeding in the NCAA’s West Region.

“We always go up and down at every practice, so we’re used to running, but this is a team that’s going to run back at us,” Williams said. “They have scorers who are expected to score and come through for them every time. They have rebounders, defenders, guys who set screens. It’s a very well-coached team.”

As wary as the Tar Heels are of their opening round opponent, they’re confident in their ability to take care of business and extend their all-time NCAA Tournament record in Charlotte to a perfect 12-0.

“It’s a team that if we play our game, we can do all right with their style of play,” Johnson said. “We like to play the style we play. I like it when a team tries to match us.”