With yesterday's thrashing of the Wolfpack, and the completion of a 6-1 January, the Tar Heels now sit alongside Duke atop the ACC mountain. More importantly, after losing 3 games in November, the Heels have now gone two straight months with only 1 loss. Is it too early to start thinking about March? Absolutely, but should the Heels make their way through February the same way they progressed through December and January (i.e. with only 1 loss), then the Heels will enter the last full month of the season at 22-6 (12-2), playing for not only a high seed, but also a shot at the ACC regular season crown.
Getting back to yesterday, the game against the Wolfpack was clearly UNC's best overall performance of this ACC season, as the Heels' were able to carry over some of the progress on offense that was made against Miami, while getting back to the defensive production that essentially won them their games against Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Clemson. It still wasn't perfect, as was evidenced by their 6-point output over the last 8 minutes of the first half, but if the Heels can continue to learn how to at least minimize the impact of their dry spells, then the next six weeks should ended up being very rewarding.
All season long, the Heels consistency (or lack thereof) on offense has been a primary concern for both team and fans alike, and while there are still some issues within individual games, from game t0 game, the Heels are starting to show some measure of consistency in their overall performance. The Heels ended yesterday's game with an eFG% of 50.0, the third straight game in which they have reached the 50.0%-plateau. While that may not seem like that big of a deal (and for past teams it would not be), this the first time all season that the Heels have done so. Furthermore, in each of the last two games, the Heels offense has produced an offensive efficiency over 110.0 (110.5), an OR% over 40.0 (44.4), and an A/T over 1.2 (1.27). These are winning numbers, and while the fact that it took 20 games for the Heels to reach these levels in back-to-games probably says more about the way UNC played to start the season, if they continue to consistently reach these levels, then a third straight 1-loss month is a distinct possibility.
Defensively, North Carolina was dominant, especially in the first-half, when the held NCSU to an offensive efficiency of 55.3 and an eFG% of 25.0. For the game, UNC held the Wolfpack to an OE of 84.2 and and eFG% of 38.6, both of which are conference bests, and allowed the Heels to produce an efficiency margin (EM = offensive efficiency - defensive efficiency) over 25.0 for the first time in 26 games against a conference opponent .
- In addition to the progress on offense that UNC has made over the last 3 games, they have also produced a block% over 10.0 in each of those games, including an in-conference best, 12.1% against the Wolfpack.
- John Henson has now hit 9 of his last 16 free throws (56.3%). While this is still nowhere near good, it is a tremendous improvement from where he was, and at least represents a level that makes fouling him less of an automatic strategy.
- Dexter Strickland had a career-high 8 rebounds and was second on the team with a defensive rebounding percentage of 19.6.
- The spread on the Roland Ratings was somewhat staggering, as Tyler Zeller had an incredible score of +52, while Reggie Bullock's team-low score was -44.
Beyond the Box Player of the Game
Before naming the POG for the NC State game, let’s first take a look at the top five ORtgs for the Tar Heels (minimum possession percentage: 10%):
[table id=74 /]
This game was expected to be dominated by the frontcourts, and as it turns out, that expectation was only half right, as UNC's frontline absolutely owned the game, and for the first time all season, the Tar Heels 3 starters in the frontcourt where also the team's three leaders in ORtg. Tyler Zeller certainly deserves kudos for his excellent ORtg of 151.4 and freakish Roland Rating (not all due to him, of course), when it comes to naming a POG, it is pretty obvious that John Henson and Harrison Barnes are the only two candidates, and in fact, are the co-Players of the Game.
Barnes was terrific on offense, producing a career-high in ORtg (143.7) on the way to the type of 25 point, 6 rebound-performance that many imagined would be commonplace this season. After hitting only 18 of his first 51 field goal attempts in ACC play (35.3%), Barnes has now hit 12 of his last 18, which gives hope to the idea that this type of performance may still be commonplace this season.
As good as Barnes was on offense, John Henson's overall performance may have been better. While his overall numbers of 16 points (eFG%: 60.0), 16 rebounds (DR%: 34.0), 7 blocks (BLK%: 17.2), and 3 assists (AST%: 16.0) were nothing short of spectacular, the fact that they came against one of the league's best low-post players (Tracy Smith) and a team that relies heavily on an inside game only increases their value.
While John Henson may be the team's most irreplaceable player, scoring performances (especially with this current team) like that which Harrison Barnes provided yesterday are every bit as crucial. Barnes and Henson were the crown jewels on UNC's last two, highly-rated recruiting classes, and this game against the Wolfpack is Exhibit A as to why. In general, a basketball team can only go as far as its best players are capable of carrying them, and based on what was put on display yesterday, Carolina's ceiling is very, very high.
Note: For reference, a full stats glossary can be found at StatSheet.com.