After two losses and a win that felt like one, UNC played at a high level versus Pittsburgh for a 21 point win at home. Here is what we learned.
Defense locked in
Pittsburgh entered the game with an offensive efficiency of 114.6 and looked very much like a capable offensive team. The Panthers had a solid TO% and sported one of the best shooting percentages at the free throw line. Aside from lapses on the defensive glass, the Tar Heels mostly locked down the Panthers. UNC forced 19 turnovers turning those miscues into 24 points. Pitt attempted just 13 free throws and for the game shot 37.3%,
The key to UNC's defensive play was making a concerted effort to stay in front of the ball. Unlike the loss to Notre Dame where the Irish parade to the basket turned into a parade to the free throw line, UNC kept the Panthers in check without fouling. Even the shots Pitt managed to hit were of the tough contested variety or open looks stemming from a scramble. Solid defensive players like deflections or blocked shots were at times turned into open shots for the Panthers. Still the general aggressiveness and focus on defense, even in those cases was better than the alternative.
While much of the focus will be on UNC figuring out matters on offense, engaging on the defensive end is just as important, especially with a hot Duke team coming to town.
Every season it's the same. Roy Williams plays with a long bench and some haphazard rotations that drive fans crazy. Then in mid-February a concerted effort is made to tighten the rotation and keep the best players on the floor. If you have February 14th versus Pitt as the game Williams would lock the rotation down, pick up your winnings at the window. Williams returned to the normal starting lineup and with that kept the rotation confined to eight players with some small exceptions.
In the first half, Theo Pinson, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt rotated in and as the half unfolded Williams stayed with those three plus the starters. Joel James pulled two minutes late in the half during which UNC played even with Pitt 4-4. There was also an odd cameo from Luke Maye with one minute left in the half resulting in a 0-2 Pitt advantage. UNC had opened up a 42-27 lead at that point so it is possible had the lead been tighter perhaps Maye doesn't see the floor.
Barring foul trouble or game with UNC well ahead for much of the game, this is likely being the nature of things going forward. James and Maye might still see 1-2 minutes here and there but nothing more than an attempt to steal some minutes in the first half. Cutting the rotation should also help the team get into a better rhythm versus the swapping of lineups seen previously.
8-for-15 from three.
After feeling like the three point shooting was never going to improve, UNC had five different Tar Heels hit threes versus Pitt and two players(Paige and Jackson) hit multiple threes. Jackson appears to be follow last season's script regarding his own play. After being up and down for much of the season, Jackson's game suddenly has new life. He has hit multiple threes in back-to-back games for the first time since doing it versus Georgia Tech and Duke near the end of the 2014-15 season. He has scored 14 points or more in three of his last four games and posted an offensive rating of 122 or better in those contests.
Paige opened the game with a pair of misses from beyond the arc but then went 3-4. Two of those threes capped big runs and got the crowd into it. Those looks also came in transition while his third make saw him come off a defensive hedge to find no one closing out. Paige pulled up and drilled the shot. After an unprecedented slump, Paige is 11-20 from three over his last three games.
Joel Berry's 0-3 from beyond the arc versus Boston College broke a string of nine straight games with a made three for the Tar Heel point guard. Berry started a new streak versus Pitt going 1-2. Nate Britt was just 3-17 from three in ACC play but drilled one in the first half. When multiple Tar Heel shooters show themselves to be perimeter threats it impedes an opposing team's ability to simply play zone or double the post. UNC is still an interior focused offensive team but eight made threes is enough to balance the floor and make this a very difficult offense to stop.
One game probably isn't enough to say this team is locked in for the stretch run. The Duke game is the Duke game so it is a mortal lock the players will be ready for Wednesday night. This question can really be answered best if UNC beats Duke, Miami and takes care of business at NC State. If that happens and the Tar Heels play at this level in those games it would set up a perfect opportunity for UNC to validate itself at Charlottesville on February 27th.
First things first: Duke week has commenced.