CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — If you look hard enough, you can find the bio page for Cameron Johnson from Pitt’s 2016-17 men’s basketball roster. Scroll all the way down to the “Personal” section and there’s a line that sticks out.
“Has been a Pitt fan all of his life and always wanted to attend Pitt.”
For the final time in his lengthy collegiate career, Johnson is going to get to play at Pitt. And on Saturday, he’s bringing the No. 15 North Carolina Tar Heels with him. The game has already been announced as a sellout.
College basketball transfers happen in bunches these days. For many players, going against the team they left is just another game — at least that’s what they’ll say. Deep down, it means a bit more, obviously.
Johnson — who departed Pitt after the 2016-17 season following Kevin Stallings’ first year at the helm — wanted to stick to a cliché initially when he was asked about playing the Panthers earlier this week, after the Tar Heels beat Harvard in their final non-conference game of the season.
“It’s our first game of conference play,” Johnson said. “That’s what it is, first and foremost.”
“Then there’s that 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. When it comes to playing at ‘The Pete’ — I’ve spent what feels like a hundred years in there,” Johnson added. “I’ve been going in there since I was seven or eight years old, since it was built. We had practices in there when I was playing AAU… I’ve spent a lot of hours in there. Slept in there many nights. It’s going to be a real familiar place, just a little different from the guest perspective.”
The last time Johnson played in the Peterson Events Center, the Tar Heels were there too. Johnson, in his final home game wearing the Pitt blue-and-gold, scored nine points and swiped four steals on Feb. 25, 2017 as the National Championship-bound Tar Heels handed the Panthers an 18-point defeat.
Since transferring to North Carolina, Johnson has grown into one of the best players in the ACC and perhaps the player Tar Heels’ head coach Roy Williams is relying on most in 2019.
He leads UNC in scoring with 16.4 points per-game — good enough for ninth in the ACC — is third on the team in rebounding, second in minutes and first in steals, field goal percentage and three-point percentage. Johnson is the only player in the ACC who ranks in the top 10 among all conference players in scoring, field goal percentage (51.7), three-point percentage (47.8) and free throw percentage (81.6).
Not only has Johnson became a great scorer since leaving Pitt, but he’s turned into an efficient one too. He leads the ACC and is tied for fifth in the country in points per-possession with 1.22, according to Synergy.
Johnson has also proven to be versatile. When he first started playing college ball, he came in as a two-guard. On Wednesday night, the Tar Heels stuck Johnson at center at times in a small-ball lineup. This made North Carolina — the sixth fastest team in the nation according to KenPom’s adjusted tempo stat — even faster.
“That made the big guys switch on to me and I think I was able to get to the basket a couple times and get an and-one layup,” teammate Nasir Little said. “Those are the kind of things we want to have.”
And when Johnson wasn’t banging under the basket and battling for rebounds at the five, he was stationed on the perimeter, where he’s shooting a career-best from three-point range this season.
Johnson’s ability to connect from deep, and to do so over defenders charging at him, is what former Duke guard and Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker was worried about.
“With Cameron being 6-foot-9 or so, we certainly tried to see if we could just rush at him and run him off the three-point line,” Amaker said. “It’s easier said than done. He can get shots over most people because of his height and length. He’s a tremendous player and a tremendous shooter.”
A Harvard defender was able to block one of Johnson’s shots from deep — and Williams wasn’t happy about that — but Johnson connected on two other attempts from outside and finished with 13 points, four rebounds, an assist and three steals against Harvard.
With the Crimson closing-in on Johnson at the perimeter, it opened the floor up for his teammates. Four other Tar Heels scored in double-digits against Harvard.
“Cam can score the ball, obviously, but just by having him out there, it creates opportunities for other people,” Little said. “The defense is going to key-in on him because of his ability to shoot and score the basketball, and that gives opportunities for guys like me to just make plays.”
Little said Wednesday that the Tar Heels hadn’t watched Pitt play yet this season. Before that night, they were focused on Harvard.
Johnson, on the other hand, has studied his former team a bit.
“I think they rely on their guards a lot, from what I’ve seen. They like to shoot the ball. They got some young guys that like to get up and down the court and play with a little bit of pace,” Johnson said. “We’ll look at them a little bit deeper and we’ll get the coaches’ input.”
Aside from the uniforms and playing in the city and arena that Johnson has a deep connection with, this Pitt team is much different than the one he left in 2017. Stallings is out, Jeff Capel is in. His former teammates have either graduated or transferred.
Reflecting on his decision to leave Pitt, Johnson doesn’t harbor any misgivings. For the Moon Township native, whose dad played for the Panthers, Pitt was and still is a special place for him, even if he’s wearing a different uniform.
“There was so much familiarity and so much comfort (at Pitt). It’s tough to give that up,” Johnson said. “(The Pitt coaches) flat out told me, when I was supposed to come back, you know, that I would have a lot of plays running through me. And in workouts after the season, I focused on a lot of stuff that we would get in the actions throughout the game. That level is hard to give up, especially when it’s your hometown team that you went to games to all the time when you were young.
“I just had to take a little leap of faith and that’s what I ended up doing and I don’t regret it one bit.”
Johnson is the oldest player on the Tar Heels’ roster and the only one who is going to go through ACC play for a fifth time, beginning on Saturday. He’s also the only Tar Heel from the state of Pennsylvania.
So, if there’s a cluster of Carolina blue in the crowd on Saturday, they’ll likely be close comrades of Johnson’s.
“I could probably use 60 tickets, you know what I mean? I already got a list going. I got a lot of family, family friends, friends from high school, you name it,” Johnson said. “I could probably fill that whole arena with tickets for people around the city. Whoever I can get there, I’ll be really thankful for them coming.
“It’s one last game at the Pete.”