UNC's trip to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis resulted in a 2-1 record with one head scratching loss to Butler and two good wins over UCLA and Florida. Here are a few thoughts on those games.
1. UNC's loss to Butler and defensive rebounding.
The Tar Heels' 74-66 loss to Butler continues to be a confusing in many ways.. The Bulldogs shot 30% from the floor and committed 19 turnovers. Had I tossed that stat line out and asked you to tell me if UNC won or lost, you would have certainly guessed a Tar Heel win. The problem against Butler was the Tar Heels played almost as poorly in terms of shooting the basketball and taking care of it. UNC also shot 56% from the free throw line and Butler, which hadn't topped 61% in its first three games, hit 72% of shots from the line.
The real issue in this game was the defensive rebounding. Butler posted a gaudy 52% offensive rebounding rate and pulled 57 total rebounds to UNC's 40. So far this season, UNC is giving up offensive rebounds at a rate of 36.8% which is 301st nationally and well below a Roy Williams era worst of 33.7% in 2004. UNC's offensive rebounding rate is a respectable 41.0% but allowing opposing teams to extend possessions is certainly an issue that should be resolved. Given UNC is currently registering a very respectable 89.6 defensive efficiency, better defensive rebounding can only improve that number and bolster UNC's offense with more transition looks.
2. UNC has shown multiple three point threats
This certainly has the "will it continue" caveat and the overall team shooting from three is just 31.6% however, in the Bahamas, UNC had multiple shooters hitting perimeter looks. Last season, three point shooting was Marcus Paige with a smattering of good outings from Leslie McDonald. In 2013-14, UNC had 23 games where multiple players hit three point shots but only 10 where multiple players each hit multiple threes. In addition, there were only two games in 2013-14 where at least four players hit threes and both of those included a walk-on off the bench each hitting pair of threes in garbage time.
So far this season, there have been three games with four Tar Heels making three pointers. In two of those games, two Tar Heels hit more than one three. The win over Florida included two Tar Heels not named Marcus Paige hitting multiple threes in a game where Paige hit less than two which did not occur at any point last season. In fact last season, among the regular rotation players, UNC only had two players who hit multiple threes in games: Paige and McDonald. So far this season Justin Jackson and J.P. Tokoto have each hit multiple three pointers in games with Tokoto doing it twice to go along with Paige. Nate Britt, who hit just three from beyond the arc last season has hit five already. Tokoto is halfway to his season total from 2013-14 with four so far.
With UNC's interior offensive capabilities, Jackson, Tokoto and Britt do not need to be volume shooters from threes. They all need to make good choices when to shoot and hit those shots with enough regularity to prevent teams from going to gimmick defenses on Paige. In short, those three players and even Theo Pinson need to hit enough threes to keep opposing defenses honest.
3. Isaiah Hicks is the spark off the bench
The sophomore big man is back at his natural position this season after spending 2013-14 at the three. The move has already paid dividends. Hicks scored 10 points against Butler and UCLA on 4-7 and 5-7 shooting. More importantly, Hicks is very active when he enters the game. The addition of him and Theo Pinson on the floor brings an instant boost of energy. Hicks is shooting 53% from the floor and has an offensive rebounding rate of 15.1% which is just behind Kennedy Meeks at 15.2%.
Hicks is still adjusting a bit to his playing time struggling with fouls and free throw shooting. Hicks has committed at least three fouls in five of UNC's six games this season and fouled out against Florida after playing just 14 minutes. Two of his fouls against the Gators came while attempt to hedge on a screen. Assuming Hicks can continue to improve, he can bolster the quality of UNC's interior depth. Brice Johnson, like Hicks can be a little foul prone so getting both of them to play cleaner defensive games will be crucial as the season unfolds.