The North Carolina Tar Heels’ game against the Virginia Tech Hokies went mostly as expected: The bigger, longer Heels absolutely dominated the Hokies on the boards, and that, along with some extremely hot shooting, allowed the Heels to coast to victory after a back-and-forth start. Here are three things we learned in this game:
1. These Heels can shoot
In the past three years, UNC has never been better than 107th in the country in three-point percentage, and no more than 6 Heels made multiple three-pointers in any of those seasons. This year’s team emphasizes the perimeter much more than many previous teams have, and now they rank a healthy 78th in the country (shooting better than 37% from beyond the arc) behind the strength of eight players who have made multiple three-point shots. If last year’s team had a flaw, it was its perimeter shooting, so to see that transformed from a weakness into a strength has been incredible. Against the Hokies, this was more evident than ever, as the Heels set season highs in both three-pointers attempted (30) and made (14). Joel Berry and Justin Jackson, as usual, set the pace, combining for 10 makes on 22 attempts (5-10 for Berry, 5-12 for Jackson), but plenty of other Heels chipped in, with Kenny Williams, Nate Britt, Theo Pinson, and Brandon Robinson finding the range once apiece. The only perimeter player for UNC that did not hit a three-pointer was Seventh Woods, and he’s not known as much of a shooter, anyways. If the team continues to shoot anywhere near this pace, they’re going to be extremely tough to beat.
2. Justin Jackson is embracing his role as offensive leader
Jackson’s breakout year has been well documented, both here and elsewhere on the Internet. Most of this has been attributed to an absurd 11% increase in his three-point percentage, but another factor in his success this year has been a newfound aggression. We first saw signs of this against Kentucky, when he went off for 34 points and took matters into his own hands in crunch time before his team eventually fell short. He has been UNC’s most consistent scorer all year, but against Virginia Tech, his status as the team’s primary scoring option seemed especially evident. Jackson took 20 shots, six more than Berry, who was second. He led the team with 21 points; he has led the team in scoring 5 out of 8 times in conference play. Jackson has always been a player who is best when he lets the offense dictate his scoring instead of trying to find it himself, and that has led to what some have criticized as a passivity in his game. This year, in his effort to be more aggressive, he has made a push to have the offense run through him instead of the other way around, and this has benefited both himself and his teammates. He is averaging career highs in almost every meaningful scoring statistics, and his team now holds the record for most consecutive games in ACC play with 85 or more points. Seven straight conference wins ain’t too shabby, either.
3. The Heels are simply dominant at home
The Tar Heels have struggled at home approximately twice, and both of those games were played without Joel Berry. They still won both of those games, by the way. With Berry in the lineup, the Heels’ average margin of victory in the Dean Smith Center has been over 30 points, and though their strength of schedule at home has not been stellar, that’s impressive. People can complain about the crowds being “cheese and wine,” “whine and cheese,” or whatever else they want to call them all they want to, but there has been a legitimate home-court advantage at the Dean Dome. Even an excellent Florida State team lost by double digits when the Heels hosted them. Virginia Tech is a solid team, too; they were ranked not too long ago, and are still top-50 in Kenpom’s and Sagarin’s rankings. It’s clear that the Heels have fun playing for home crowds, too: Just look at Justin Jackson’s face when the crowd responds to a three he hits from about Durham, or Kenny Williams diving headfirst into rows of students in the risers. This team feeds off of the crowd’s energy in a noticeable way, and this year, the home crowd has been giving them all they can. Let’s hope both sides continue their success as the season continues.