North Carolina enters exam week with a 10-1 record, a Maui Championship, and Kentucky looming on the horizon. All things considered, there is an argument to be made that the season has been more successful than anticipated. With the exception of injuries to Theo Pinson and Joel Berry, every optimistic scenario has morphed into reality. Minus a 10 minute stretch in Bloomington, Indiana, this season has been about as close to perfect as could have been realistically imagined.
That being said, there’s still plenty to improve upon. Obstacles remain, and unexpected speed bumps are going to lend credence to caution. Yesterday’s game against Tennessee Is the perfect illustration of this. The Heels walked away with the win, but there were a few lessons learned as the players prepare for final exams.
Scheduling: Part Art, Part Science
Having spent time in coaching offices I can attest that there are no hard and fast rules. However, the attention to detail would surprise most fans. Strength and style of the opponent, required travel, personal grudges, amount of money requested, and location are just a few of numerous factors that can influence a schedule. That’s the science behind it.
Yet, understanding your team and creating a schedule that will provide multiple challenges is the art that’s required. Some teams just want to load up on wins. Others want nothing but daunting challenges. UNC’s staff found the perfect blend for this season, even if some of the wins have been closer than hoped for.
Playing Hawaii before Maui was the perfect warm-up game to get the Heels in the right mindset before they dominated that tournament against solid competition. Radford was the kind of opponent you want to play after IU, regardless if you win or lose against the Hoosiers.
And now, this week, Davidson and Tennessee were exactly the challenges UNC needed before resting up for Kentucky. The team was stressed and lineup combinations were experimented with. They faced two teams with different styles, guided by two top-notch coaches. Despite key injuries, UNC walked away with two important wins. The coaching staff deserves credit for crafting a sneaky tougher-than-acknowledged schedule.
Seventh and Stilman
With Joel Berry sidelined with an ankle injury, Nate Britt was the obvious choice to slide over and start at point guard. Most assumed that Seventh Woods would then become the de facto back-up PG. Stilman White had other plans.
While Seventh was the first sub off the bench against Tennessee, Stilman logged 12 minutes. HIs stat line wasn’t impressive, but he provided poise and stability during UNC’s comeback, including a timely jump shot. It was similar to his 15 minute, six point, zero turnover performance against Davidson.
Meanwhile, Woods played for just eight minutes. While he contributed six points in that time, he also gave UT three extra possessions. Athletic as he is, Seventh Woods is still a freshman point guard in Roy Williams’ system. Every great play he makes is negated by one or two bad ones. Until he gets healthy and harnesses his athleticism he is going to produce uneven results.
Truthfully, we probably should not be too surprised by Stilman’s presence in the line-up. As a 10th year senior (kidding!), he is the only UNC player who has made it past the Sweet 16 more than once. He knows the effort it takes to win in tough environments. He even had UNC within a few possessions of beating Kansas in the 2012 Elite Eight. It’ll be interesting to see how he continues to contribute when Joel returns.
Tar Heel Resolve
This one may be too easy, but for a team who has spent the past few years fighting the “soft” label, yesterday’s win needs to be appreciated. Once again UNC got off to a sluggish start and never truly looked comfortable. While Tennessee probably never should have controlled the game, they deserve credit for their effort. However, even without their on-court leader, UNC still grinded out an important victory.
Nobody was particularly stellar, but as a team, every single player contributed. That needs to be understood and acknowledged. Despite his poor shooting, Nate gave a vintage UNC point guard performance with five steals and seven assists. Tony Bradley rebounded (pardon the pun) from a poor showing against Davidson with a double-double. Brandon Robinson had a Theo Pinson-esque tip-in. Kennedy Meeks had the most important rebound of the night. Luke Maye hit two critical free throws.
Every night it has been a different Tar Heel who finds success. Joel Berry led the way in Maui, and Justin Jackson found his groove against Davidson. In between, Meeks, Williams, and Hicks have all had career games. So far the unselfishness and willingness for everyone to buy into the team concept has been under-appreciated.
Against Tennessee, this team’s character and resolve was on display for everyone to see. Battling back from a 15 point deficit isn’t normal, easy, or desired. Yet, without a true, noticeable “leader”, the Heels found a way to compete and walk away with the victory.
Some people will bemoan the lack of a “go-to” player. I did after the loss to Indiana. However, if that’s the biggest problem these Heels have shown through eleven games, then this season may truly become special.