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UNC Basketball: Things we learned-PK80 Edition

The trip to Portland was full of lessons for this team going forward.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Michigan State Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

It’s admittedly tough to write about lessons learned with that Michigan State loss so fresh in the mind, so perhaps it’s good that we are going to take a look at the entirety of the PK80 tournament. In the end, Roy Williams got almost everything he wanted out of this tournament with the exception of a title.

Carolina did go 2-1, which means a lot of things worked well even if it didn’t on Sunday. With that in mind, what did we learn this weekend?

They can take care of inferior competition

In both the Portland and Arkansas games, Carolina turned affairs that were closer than they should have been into dominant victories in the blink of an eye. These were two teams they should have beaten, and they made sure they were finished off.

Against Portland, Carolina was up by just 13 going into the locker room. Out of halftime they went on a 14-0 run in the first 3 minutes, the lead was 27, and the game was over. The two teams played fairly even after that, but the quick strike ability of the Tar Heels overwhelmed Portland, which was good to see considering the odd start time on a holiday.

Arkansas was a different tale, to an extent. Carolina held a double-digit lead a couple of times when Arkansas put together a run that put them within shouting distance. With 13 minutes left, Arkansas got within 7 before Carolina went on a 9-2 run to stretch it to 16. It seemed to be a repeat of Friday, but Arkansas again put together a run and was within 6 with 3:22 to go. Carolina ended up winning by 19.

That the team responded to inferior competition making it a game and then quickly made it into a no-doubt final is a great sign for the season coming up. Carolina will be a top-tier ACC team and those first two games are going to be similar to ones they will play in the conference, so knowing they can dispatch of teams they are better than is good to see.

The youth of the big men will be a problem on some nights

Over the last two games of the tournament, the BrooksManHuff combo in the middle had its toughest games by far. It’s not a surprise, as both Arkansas and Michigan State put good experience on the court down low, and it was the first time this season the freshmen had gone up against teams that can hit you both down low and up top.

Make no mistake, on most nights what you will see is likely going to be what they have produced up to this point. Very few teams in the country have what Arkansas and Michigan State have, and most don’t have the defensive ability to handle someone like Luke Maye, a four who can hit you from deep as well as make plays down low. His play takes pressure off the young big men, but the last two games were the first time they looked truly lost.

The difference between Friday and Sunday? Carolina shot 49.2% from the floor, 50% from three, and 17-21 from the line against the Hogs. On Sunday, those numbers plummeted to 24.6%, 5.6%, and 14-24, respectively. The good shooting hid some of the rough spots for the bigs on Friday, but they were all laid bare on Sunday. Brooks, especially, had his lunch handed to him several times as multiple shots were blocked, but neither Manley nor Huffman showed they deserved to take the minutes from Brooks when given the chance.

Roy warned us about how he wasn’t happy with any of them before the season started. This weekend showed why. Carolina just doesn’t have the upperclassman big under the basket like they've had the last few years. Games like Sunday are learning experiences, however, so time will tell how much the three learn and apply it going forward.

The defense is pretty good

I know that is tough to read after a nearly 20 point loss, but, a small dig in the numbers will tell you that on the defensive side, Carolina looked really good:

Portland: 39.7% FG, including 13-28 from 3, 14 turnovers, 5 blocks

Arkansas: 37.5 % FG, including 9-27 from 3, 9 turnovers, 7 blocks

Michigan State: 40.0% FG, including 10-26 from 3, 24 turnovers, 4 blocks.

Carolina’s defense gave their offense a chance to win, and in two of those games, they converted. Holding Michigan State to 40% overall and getting 24 turnovers is phenomenal. The counter, of course, is that Michigan State’s defense was also really good and Michigan State took advantage of their easy baskets, versus Carolina who couldn’t hit a layup to save their life.

The upperclassmen can’t carry them every night

Point blank, one of the younger players is going to have to have the confidence to step up when shots aren’t falling for the upperclassmen. Berry, Pinson, Maye, and Williams all had tough games, and all looked to be forcing shots to try and get their team back into it. The only bench player to get points for Carolina was Andrew Platek, and that’s a problem when you have six players coming off the bench.

Even in the first two games, the bench didn’t really produce. Platek (there’s that name again) was the only one to score in double digits in either game, and the bench accounted for only 30 of the 102 points Thursday, and 14 of the 87 points Friday. With both Woods and Felton, you really don’t want Joel Berry having to average 36 minutes a night, as that is a recipe for him to be worn out by the end of the year.

The caveat here is that this team still doesn’t have Cam Johnson, who at minimum is expected to bring that spark off the bench when he comes back. That said, because of the injury he’s not going to play 20 minutes immediately, and the time is now for one of the younger players to make a case to keep his minutes when Johnson is back.

The upperclassmen can’t panic when shots aren’t falling

There’s two sides to this coin, though, and Sunday night saw a meltdown of all the senior leadership on the floor. Maye had trouble with the size down low and pushed his shots, both the layups and the 3 pointers. Berry seemed determined to try and get the ball in the hoop himself instead of passing, Pinson took several “YOLO” 3 pointers that were ill-advised, and Williams just couldn’t find his shot at all. No one seemed to step up and so something that would settle the team down on the court.

The concerning thing is that these guys have seen this before. They have had games like this last year against Indiana, Miami, and Virginia. You would think they could draw on that well and be a calming influence on the floor, not compound a bad decision with another bad decision.

Credit some of this to the defense Michigan State put up, probably the best defense Carolina has seen since that UVa loss. It’s a tough, physical style that must be especially wearing when you are playing your fourth game in a week, and third in four days. Still, two of the missed layups by the upperclassmen led directly to three pointers by MSU, and missing ten free throws just isn’t going to cut it at all.

Roy is not going to call that timeout, so stop asking him to

During the run Arkansas had, and during the first real push Michigan State had in the first half, Roy chose to let his team figure it out. This is not new. This is his philosophy, as he wants his players to be able to learn from adversity without wasting the timeout that he may need later in the game.

You could argue that this philosophy should bend slightly when you have the amount of youth playing significant minutes that you have, but this is the time of year where you want them to learn. You see how they respond, and in the next practice show them so they know how to react better the next time. Plus, when you have the Final Four MOP out on the floor, you expect him to be the leader on the court that you need.

The question from here is will the team learn from this? The sooner they can take their lessons and scrub the loss from their memory, the better, especially since they take the court again on Wednesday.

Bill Walton is not everyone’s cup of tea

I tried listening to him, I really did. To be honest, when he’s calling a game that I don't have a vested interest in, I find what he does enjoyable if only because it makes something interesting to me that otherwise wouldn’t be. I suspect that’s where a lot of his Twitter fans come from, and why he gets these assignments, because he brings some casual viewers into the broadcast.

The problem is that when you actually do care about the game, it gets old, quickly. I’ll freely admit this is a me problem, and I’m glad I have a sound bar with a BlueTooth that allowed me to stream the Tar Heel Sports Network. I may not do that for every game, but knowing it works well sure gives me more options than I used to have.

Nike should not make Carolina wear those uniforms again

This one was suggested by my wife, who didn’t see the Twitter reaction to the outfit when it was announced prior to the event.

As superstitious as Roy is, I suspect he’ll agree with this take, too.

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Carolina makes the cross-country trek back to Chapel Hill to take on Michigan Wednesday night. We’ll see how much they’ve gleaned from their trip out west.