It’s fair to say, Miami’s Reggie Johnson agreed, that he was still working his way back into playing shape the last time the Hurricanes matched up with North Carolina.
But this time around?
“I feel good, personally,” said Johnson, whose Hurricanes will face the seventh-ranked Tar Heels in Coral Gables, Fla., on Wednesday night. “And the team, we’re real together, we’re real confident … and we’re real excited to play this game.”
Since losing at UNC 73-56 on Jan. 10, the Hurricanes have won six of eight outings -- including a five-game streak of victories that included a 78-74 overtime upset at Duke. It has rejuvenated their NCAA tournament hopes under first-year coach Jim Larranaga, and thrilled Johnson, who missed the first nine games of the season because of knee surgery.
“We’ve beaten some good teams, some teams with some really good RPIs,’’ Johnson said in a phone interview Tuesday. “And I really think we’ve got a good chance to make it [to the tournament]. … Students around here, they’re more excited about basketball than I’ve ever seen them.”
A big reason for that is Johnson, a 6-foot-10, 284-pound big man who averaged 15 ppg during Miami’s five game winning streak (and logged 35 minutes during that Duke game, scoring five crucial points in overtime). He'll be looking to bounce back after a four-point performance in Miami's loss at Florida State last weekend.
His wide body “makes him just exhausting to play,’’ UNC forward Tyler Zeller said earlier this season.
And it also makes him a tough defensive matchup, UNC forward John Henson -- last season’s ACC Defensive Player of the Year -- said during the preseason.
“I do take that as a compliment, coming from great players,’’ said Johnson, who recorded 12 points and nine rebounds during the loss at UNC last month.
Indeed, Johnson, who hails from Winston-Salem, N.C., knows many of the Tar Heels fairly well. He’s worked at UNC coach Roy Williams’ summer camp in the past, and might do so in the future.
“In the offseason, we can all be friendly … nothing wrong with that,’’ Johnson said. “But during games, we’re all out there battling to win.”
Johnson’s return to playing shape helps that goal.
“If you look at Kenny Kadji's numbers, Kenny was averaging about seven points a game before Reggie became available,’’ Larranaga told reporters during his team's winning streak, according to The Palm Beach post. “He’s been averaging about 17 points a game since Reggie’s been back. Durand Scott was shooting in the low 30s (field goal percentage) when Reggie was not available, and he’s been shooting about 50 percent or above playing with Reggie.
Perhaps most important: The team was 5-4 without Johnson, and is now 10-4 with him.
“So he’s impacted his team and his teammates in a major way in so many different categories,’’ Larranaga said.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.