Sitting at 9-3 with just one nonconference game left on the schedule, the North Carolina Tar Heels are in search of an answer to their frustrating inconsistencies. Whether the game results in a win or a loss for UNC, it always seems to get ugly against the lesser opponents.
Carolina has averaged 84 points per game against Louisville, Michigan State, Kentucky and Texas. Against Oakland, Holy Cross, Belmont, Richmond, UAB, UNC Greensboro, Davidson and Northern Kentucky, the Tar Heels averaged just 78 points in comparison.
And that's with 97 points in an overtime win against Davidson.
Some credit should be given to the underdogs who never give up. Some blame should be placed on the inexperience of this Tar Heel squad, but there is one contributing factor that may be greater than the rest: the team's lack of swagger.
What I like the most about this group may be its greatest downfall. The Heels are fun-loving, personable guys with high character. Unfortunately, that might mean these kids are incapable of developing swagger on a consistent basis, which is necessary to put them over the top.
Think about James Michael McAdoo. What has been one of the biggest knocks on the junior since earning the starting role last fall?
Simply put, he's a soft-spoken, nice guy who seems unable to unleash the nasty in him. The "Psycho T" in him, if you will. He will occasionally get fired up after a big dunk, but those moments are extremely rare.
Marcus Paige will get amped up after dropping a clutch shot, but where is that emotion in the first half?
P.J. Hairston is no longer on the bench, so he certainly isn't coming in to save the day. Paige is the next-best player at creating his own shot. Now that Leslie McDonald is back, the sophomore should find more room to work with on the perimeter.
Paige is a smart, calculated and respectful college athlete. You have to love that. But it would be nice if he would leave that persona off the court. It'd be great to see him carry himself like a guy who is scoring 18.7 points per contest with five 20-point games to his name this season.
That includes a career-high 32 points against Louisville earlier this season.
But that just isn't his character, nor the character of J.P. Tokoto, Nate Britt or Joel James. And that's fine. But there needs to be an emotional leader who can lift these guys up—have them play with some swagger.
You can go right down the line, and you'll find only one guy who has shown the ability to fill the void Hairston left.
Enter Brice Johnson.
Sadly, the Brice Johnson that the Tar Heels need has been MIA the last few games. He's been in a shooting slump since the Kentucky game and fouled out against Davidson with just three field-goal attempts and two points.
What we now see is a Johnson who hangs his head and often looks apathetic.
The Tar Heels need the guy who wears his emotion on his sleeve: the guy who pumps his fist and screams on every big dunk or block. The guy who looks for his shot because he knows without a doubt he can score at will.
When he does score, he's bobbing his head and skipping down the floor with the confidence of a legend.
Some may say those things are showboating and do not belong in the game. Not me.
Showboating slows the team down because the player is too preoccupied with himself to do his job. Many times it leads to penalties.
What I'm talking about is swagger.
Some of the best players in any sport have an air of confidence. Their greatness is defined by their play but seen through their body language.
Michael Jordan and Tyler Hansbrough weren't on the floor to make friends. They were hungry, blood-thirsty animals; they only cared about winning once they stepped onto the hardwood.
And it wasn't enough to just get a win. They wanted to crush their opponents mercilessly. There was no dial on these guys to "turn it down a notch."
Can Brice Johnson Return Swagger to UNC?
That's the Brice Johnson the Tar Heels need. I'm not sure anyone else on this squad is capable of being that guy. The emotion guys like Johnson and Hairston play with is contagious. It wasn't just Hairston's scoring ability that made the Tar Heels dangerous last season.
It was his swagger that engulfed the team faster than a blazing forest fire. When he wasn't on the floor last season, the team was emotionless.
He was the missing piece that made everything click. His emotion is what this current team is lacking, beyond the talent he would have brought to the floor.
There is a chance that this emotional void can be filled, depending on which Brice Johnson steps on the floor.
Without at least a little swagger, the Tar Heels won't have a shot to win the ACC or the national title.
With it? Well, you saw what they did to Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky.