Saturday’s ACC opener at Pittsburgh is a road game for the North Carolina basketball team. For forward Cameron Johnson, it’s also a homecoming.
A native of Pittsburgh suburb of Moon Township, Pa., who played his first two collegiate seasons with the Panthers, the 6-foot-9 graduate student will be making his first trip back to the Peterson Activities Center since transferring to UNC two summers ago.
It’s a trip he said he’s excited to make, even as he downplayed the significance of his emotional return.
“It’s another game, first and foremost,” Johnson said after Wednesday’s nonconference victory against Harvard at the Smith Center. “It’s the first game of conference play, but then there’s the added bonus of being able to go play in an arena I’ve played in a million times in front of a lot of family.”
Johnson will have a large number of family members and friends in attendance Saturday at a venue that’s very familiar to him.
“When it comes to playing at The ‘Pete, I spent what felt like hundreds of years there,” he said. “I’ve been going in there since I was 7-8 years old, since it was built. We had practice in there when I was playing AAU. Since my dad played there, I was always around.
“It’s going to be a really familiar place, maybe just a little bit different from the guest’s perspective. But first and foremost it’s our first conference game, so we’ve got to take care of business.”
Johnson’s father Gilbert played for Pitt from 1988-90. As a youngster growing up a Panthers fan, it was a dream come true for him to sign with his favorite team out of high school.
He appeared in 74 games for Pitt, including eight as a true freshman before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, before his dream began to sour when coach Jamie Dixon left for TCU following his redshirt sophomore season.
Uninterested in playing for new coach Kevin Stallings and with his bachelor’s degree already in hand, Johnson headed to UNC as a graduate transfer — though not before Stallings and Pittsburgh attempted to block the move.
It was a contentious situation that led to some hard feelings when Johnson faced his old team for the first time last season at the Smith Center.
Johnson scored 14 points with four assists in helping the Tar Heels to a 96-65 drubbing of the Panthers. Afterward, Stallings did everything he could to avoid talking about Johnson before finally saying that he “doesn’t like to comment on other people’s players.”
Stallings was fired after the season. He was replaced by former Duke assistant Jeff Capel, who apparently has no problem talking about other people’s players.
“When he was at Pitt, I knew he was a really good shooter, had really good size,” Capel said. “I thought he was a good player. I think he’s gotten better.
“Probably the competition in practice every day has helped him get better. Certain programs have a culture where their guys just get better because of the standards. The North Carolina program is a program like that.”
With Stallings gone and none of Johnson’s former teammates left on the Pitt roster, Saturday’s rematch in Pittsburgh has taken on a much more positive tone than last year’s game.
That doesn’t mean he’ll be welcomed back with open arms.
He’ll likely be the target of verbal barbs from the Panthers’ passionate student section, nicknamed The Oakland Zoo. Though UNC coach Roy Williams is confident Johnson is mature enough to handle the situation, he plans to talk to his player about not letting the surroundings and the atmosphere become a distraction.
“My guess is he’ll channel it all and hopefully motivate him a bit more,” Williams said. “I’d really be surprised if he goes out there nervous. That’s just not his nature. I haven’t seen him nervous too many times.”
Johnson currently leads the Tar Heels in scoring at 16.4 points per game, 3-point percentage at 48.5 percent and steals with 18 while surpassing the 1,000 career point mark earlier this season.
Now healthy after battling hip and shoulder injuries in his first season at UNC, he is a key element in whatever success the team achieves moving forward.
“Last year he was grimacing all the time,” Williams said. “More freedom of movement has helped him greatly. I know he’s enjoying the stuff more than he did last year.”