College Basketball

Duke looming, Heels search for old Tokoto

UNC head coach Roy Williams steps on the court to confer with J.P. Tokoto (13) during the first half on the Jan. 26 game at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
UNC head coach Roy Williams steps on the court to confer with J.P. Tokoto (13) during the first half on the Jan. 26 game at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. rwillett@newsobserver.com

On another Saturday inside another visiting locker room, J.P. Tokoto, the North Carolina wing forward, answered the same question he had the week before – one about his apparently changing role, and about coming off the bench and not starting.

“My playing time hasn’t been affected, I’m just not starting,” Tokoto said Saturday after the Tar Heels’ 89-76 loss at Pittsburgh. “A lot more people make it a big deal than what it is. This is the second week in a row I got a question like that.

“My answer is simply it’s basketball. I’m going to keep playing whether I’m starting or not. And it shouldn’t be anything big to anybody else. It shouldn’t even be a question.”

It is a question, though, because Tokoto lately hasn’t appeared to be the same player he was earlier in the season. Earlier in the season he was, at times, one of the Tar Heels’ most valuable players.

He could score occasionally, if that’s what UNC needed, but, more than that, he proved his versatility with his passing and rebounding, and with his impressive defense. Always known for his athleticism, Tokoto seemed to be progressing into a more complete player.

And now? Well, now Tokoto’s recent performances have been so puzzling that UNC coach Roy Williams has a difficult time explaining what’s going on.

“I wish I could answer that question,” Williams said Monday during the ACC teleconference. “It’s one of those kind of deals if I knew the answer we would have already tried to fix it.”

Outside of UNC’s Feb. 2 loss to Virginia in which he had just one point and one rebound, Tokoto hasn’t necessarily played poorly. He has had eight games with at least five assists this season, and two of those have come in UNC’s past five games. He had seven rebounds in the defeat at Pitt on Saturday.

Overall, though, Tokoto’s recent play has been an enigma. He hasn’t appeared to be the same player since he committed six turnovers in consecutive games – a victory against Syracuse and a loss at Louisville, where the Tar Heels squandered an 18-point lead in the second half.

Those games led to the one against Virginia – a game in which, Williams said, Tokoto “was almost just not involved.” Which led to Tokoto coming off the bench against Boston College and Pittsburgh.

“I’m not going to let it kill me,” Tokoto said of not starting. “But I am going to say it’s the second week in a row I’ve got that question, (and) my answer is going to be the same. It’s basketball; coach made a decision. Who am I to say what he has to do?

“Obviously, I’m not performing up to my ability. He sees that and he knows how to bring that out of me, and this is the way. So I’ve just got to keep on playing basketball.”

It’s difficult to envision the Tar Heels reaching their potential without Tokoto playing at a high level. UNC has only five games left in the regular season – two of them against Duke, including one Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Tokoto played an instrumental role during UNC’s six-game winning streak in January. He scored when he needed to but, more than that, did the little things that don’t always show up on a stat sheet.

His defense against N.C. State’s Trevor Lacey, for instance, was key in the Tar Heels’ victory against the Wolfpack in Raleigh. Weeks later, Tokoto is attempting to rediscover what made him successful earlier in the season.

In the loss at Pitt, Tokoto made two of his eight shots from the field – and both of those made shots came in the final minutes, with the game already decided.

“We’ve got to get him back in the flow,” Williams said. “He has not turned it over the last couple games like there was 12 in two games – both of those were killers there. I’m sure he’s trying to find the right way and so are we.

“So it’s the same old answer – if I knew exactly what the problem was, I would have already fixed it.”

Carter: 919-829-8944;

Twitter: @_andrewcarter

Tough stretch

J.P. Tokoto’s game has fallen off the past three weeks:

Date

Opponent

FG-A

Pts.

Reb.

TO

Feb. 14

Pittsburgh

2-8

4

7

1

Feb. 7

Boston College

1-4

9

5

0

Feb. 2

Virginia

0-3

1

1

0

Jan. 31

Louisville (OT)

5-12

11

11

6

Jan. 26

Syracuse

2-7

7

4

6

Past 5

.294

6.4

5.6

2.6

Season

.409

8.5

5.1

2.4

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