North Carolina-Pittsburgh Preview
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Since Cameron Johnson left Pittsburgh to join North Carolina as a graduate transfer, the Panthers haven't won an Atlantic Coast Conference game.
Now the teams meet to open ACC play Saturday afternoon at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh. For Johnson, it's a much-anticipated return to what he considers his hometown, as No. 15 North Carolina will arrive with aspirations of another high finish in the league.
The Tar Heels didn't visit Pittsburgh last season. This game will hold particular meaning for Johnson, a senior guard in his second season with North Carolina.
"I've spent a lot of hours in there," Johnson said of the arena.
Johnson is North Carolina's leading scorer at 16.4 points per game and is shooting 48.5 percent on 3-pointers (32-for-66). He led the Tar Heels in scoring in all four December games, but consistency for the team as a whole has been a troubling topic for coach Roy Williams.
"We've got to play better defensively and stop turning the ball over," Williams said. "We need to rebound the ball better."
Saturday's game marks Pittsburgh's first in ACC play under coach Jeff Capel, a former Duke player and assistant coach.
Both teams hold 10-3 records. It's the 15th time in Williams' 16 seasons that the Tar Heels have a double-digit win total against non-ACC opponents.
"This stuff is over," Williams said of the schedule. "Now it's big-time basketball in front of us. We have to play better."
Pittsburgh never won an ACC game last season, but its record in non-conference play is encouraging. After all, last season's final overall mark was 8-24 under former coach Kevin Stallings.
"I think that we've done some good things," Capel said. "I think we've improved from Game 1 to Game 13. I think that some guys individually have gotten better and collectively as a group we've gotten better."
For the Panthers, the sting of a winless conference record is something that should seem far in the past.
"I think the results that we are looking for and getting are a lot different," Pittsburgh senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame said. "We have a lot of things that we also want to prove to our fans."
While Williams has repeating stressed concerns about North Carolina's defense, it's the opposite for the Panthers.
"Our defense, for the most part, has been pretty good," Capel said. "I think that we have been streaky offensively. We need to become more consistent there."
Pittsburgh's Trey McGowens is the reigning ACC Rookie of the Week after his 16-point, five-rebound effort in last Saturday's 68-54 win over Colgate. He's averaging 12.1 points per game with an 82.8-percent rate on free throws, and his 2.2 steals per game have bolstered his stock early in his career.
In the Colgate game, sophomore Terrell Brown set a single-game program record with nine blocked shots.
For the Panthers, it's critical to see how they handle ACC competition.
"It's time to flush 2018. It's over," Capel said. "2018 provided all of us some really good things, some hard things, some adverse things and some difficult things, but they're all things that help make us stronger. They're things that I think are going to help make us better for 2019."
Updated January 4, 2019