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Pitt

No awkwardness expected when Pitt faces former Panther Cam Johnson, Tar Heels

Jerry DiPaola
| Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, 6:39 p.m.
North Carolina's Cam Johnson (right) goes for a block against Clemson's Clyde Trapp during their game Tuesday.
North Carolina's Cam Johnson (right) goes for a block against Clemson's Clyde Trapp during their game Tuesday.
North Carolina's Cameron Johnson, center, drives to the net while defended by Clemson's Elijah Thomas and Clyde Trapp, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 82-78. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
North Carolina's Cameron Johnson, center, drives to the net while defended by Clemson's Elijah Thomas and Clyde Trapp, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 82-78. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

If you were wondering if Cam Johnson carries a grudge against Pitt for trying — unsuccessfully — to block his transfer to North Carolina, a peek into his apartment in Chapel Hill, N.C., might answer the question.

A Pitt jersey hangs on the wall, a tribute to the place where Johnson spent the previous three years of his life. Yes, there's a Carolina jersey next to it, but Gil Johnson, his dad, will tell you, “Cam loves Pitt.”

Worlds collide Saturday night when Pitt — with only one active player who can call Johnson a former teammate — meets North Carolina in the Dean Smith Center.

Awkward? Probably not, considering Johnson's past is dwarfed by other issues. Such as:

• Pitt (8-15, 0-10) is trying to avoid its 11th consecutive loss, which would set a school record.

• North Carolina (16-7, 5-5) has lost three in a row for the first time since the 2013-14 season and dropped from 10th to 19th in this week's Associated Press poll.

“We're just going to treat him like he's any other opponent, scout him the same,” Pitt freshman point guard Marcus Carr said. “We know he shoots the ball well. We're just going to try and take that away from him and play solid ‘D.' ”

Junior Jared Wilson-Frame, new to the team this season as a junior college transfer, said he's “good friends” with Johnson, but the game holds no special significance for him.

“We're just preparing like we would for any other game,” he said. “He's a cool guy. A really cool guy, actually. There was a lot of stuff going on with that situation. I try to stay away from things like that.”

Johnson and Pitt coach Kevin Stallings were unavailable for comment for this story.

“It's not going to be awkward,” Gil Johnson said of his son playing against the school that recruited him from Our Lady of Sacred Heart. “If Ryan (Luther, Pitt senior forward ) was playing, it might be a little bit of fun for him playing against your buddy.”

But Luther is out for the season with a foot injury, and Johnson, who scored 583 points in three seasons at Pitt, is gone, leaving two considerable holes in Stallings' lineup. The only Pitt player on the court who can call Johnson a former teammate will be senior guard Jonathan Milligan.

Johnson, who graduated from Pitt in three years, left a hole in North Carolina's lineup, too, when he missed the first 11 games with neck and left-knee injuries. The latter required surgery Nov. 15.

Before that, Johnson showed coach Roy Williams the type of shooting ability he was seeking after losing five key players from his 2017 national championship team.

“One day, he didn't miss a shot,” Williams told RaleighCo.com before the season. “I mean, everything he looked at went in. I said, ‘Well, that's pretty good. He'll probably help us.' ”

After returning from the knee surgery, Johnson has averaged 12.7 points in 12 games (seven starts), slightly more than his 11.9 average at the end of last season at Pitt. He scored a career-high 32, hitting 6 of 10 3-point attempts, Tuesday night in an 82-78 loss at No. 20 Clemson.

He also has hit all but two of his 30 foul shots while keeping up the 4.5 rebound average he recorded at Pitt last season. At North Carolina, he is given plenty of freedom to attack the offensive glass, something Williams emphasizes for all players.

“I couldn't ask for a better coach, a better program,” said Gil Johnson, whose son, Donovan, is getting major-college looks as a sophomore at OLSH. “Cam loves it down there, beautiful area, not far from where I grew up in Conway, S.C.

“I am truly blessed. The only thing I miss are our Sunday dinners with Cameron.”

Before the season, Johnson said North Carolina offered him everything he was seeking in a transfer destination.

“I really wanted a good team culture. Good players, a good locker room, guys that get along,” he told TarHeels.com. “I wanted guys who really enjoy playing with each other. Carolina really fits that bill.

“You're not going to get a better coach than coach Williams, and Carolina is the most together team as a unit that I have played against. Everything they do, they seem to play for each other.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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