After a rapid-fire start to the season with three games in five days, the Tar Heels will have had four days to travel to Hawaii, rest, and get used to the time difference before playing against Hawaii at 1:00 AM on Saturday, November 19 (As in, if you want to watch it live, you’ll be staying up late Friday night). Just like the first three games, this should provide Coach Roy Williams with a good opportunity to continue to play around with lineups ahead of the Maui Invitational, especially some small-ball lineups with Luke Maye sidelined for the next few weeks.
The Rainbow Warriors made plenty of noise last year, winning the Big West conference both regular season and tournament titles, earning them a #13 seed in the NCAA tournament which led to an upset win over UC-Berkeley. That team was well-coached, experienced, tenacious, and fairly skilled, and earned Ken Pomeroy’s #60 ranking by the end of last season.
This...is not that team. The coach, Eran Ganot, remains after having won Big West Coach of the Year honors and is still one of the hot names in NCAA basketball coaching. However, already guaranteed to not play in the postseason due to NCAA sanctions, this Hawaii team returns none of the starters from last year’s team. The new starting lineup features a freshman, a sophomore, two junior college transfers, and a Division 1 transfer, or, in other words, a group of players who have not played together very much. Preseason rankings have, for some perspective, expected Hawaii to finish 8th in the Big West, and Pomeroy has them currently ranked at #194 in the nation. The ‘Bows have cobbled together a 2-1 record after playing three very close games against Southern Illinois, Texas State, and Florida Atlantic, with all three of their games’ margins being less than six points.
Even in the latter two games, which Hawaii won, they fell behind in the second half to teams that Pomeroy has ranked much worse than them. Some may point to this as an indicator of toughness (why hello there, Mr. Dakich), and while there is value in being able to come from behind, there’s far more value, in my opinion, in handily beating the teams that you’re supposed to beat. Behind Ganot, I expect that Hawaii will do better than expected this year after taking some time to cohere, but they’re not there yet. The team’s still fairly disjointed, and their 16 turnovers per game while playing at a reasonably slow pace reflects that.
That said, there are seeds of a good team in there. The Rainbow Warriors pass the ball very well, assisting on 62% of their made field goals so far this season. Those assists are spread out fairly evenly among the starters, as well, which points to a team with a fluid offense. After a dismal first game, they have shot well from beyond the arc, close to 41% in their two victories. Four out of their five starters have made a three-pointer this season, and the player who hasn’t, Gibson Johnson, was a three-point threat in junior college. Guarding stretch forwards has been an issue for UNC in the recent past, and without perhaps the two players most suited to guard perimeter bigs, this poses some potential matchup problems. It’s hard to see this giving them enough of an edge, though, given their beginning-of-the-season issues.
The past few years, Roy Williams’ teams have loosely followed this trend: The lineup is tinkered with in the non-conference portion of the schedule, the team loses a game or two it should have won due to a lack of focus possibly partially caused by this commotion, then the rotation shortens in January, lineups are more steady, and the team suddenly locks in and plays with focus, almost never underachieving once March rolls around. This has been a pretty good system, to say the least; last year’s #1 ranked team lost to Northern Iowa in November before making it to the national championship, when, unfortunately, a meteor hit the stadium the night before the game and forced it to be cancelled. There are quibbles to be had with it, because losses to teams that you should have beaten don’t look great on your record when seeding time comes, but we can all agree that we’d rather the Heels lose to a middling team in November than in March.
This year’s team looks to be bucking that trend in the best possible way. It is only three games in, but the 2016-2017 Heels are playing with a defensive intensity that looks to be in postseason form, with the offense, as always, to match. They’ve beaten two expected conference champions in games that weren’t even close. They are forcing turnovers at a high rate, especially live-ball turnovers, pressuring ball-handlers, not committing lazy fouls, and generally playing excellent defensive basketball. On the offensive end, the team is averaging 50% on all field goals, 42% on three-point field goals, and close to 70% on free throws. Their assist rate of 69% is one of the best in the country. The team rebounds almost half of their field goal misses! If they’ve shown a weakness so far, it’s on the defensive boards, where their rate of 61.1% is not great, but this is to be expected after losing the best rebounder in last year’s NCAA in Brice Johnson. In every other facet, though, the team has been nothing short of outstanding.
Hawaii can win if:
- They limit turnovers and tempo, not allowing UNC to get transition buckets.
- They continue shooting well from 3, as well as improving their percentage inside the arc.
- They take advantage of the offensive glass and get second-chance points.
UNC can win if:
- They play their game: Pressuring the ball, forcing turnovers, and getting easy points.
- They continue to score as effectively as they have, and don’t become one-dimensional.
UNC wins, 89-65.