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UNC Basketball in Vegas: Three Things Learned

UNC left Vegas with mixed results, but plenty of optimism.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at North Carolina Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Alright. The Heels got out of Las Vegas with a few cuts and bruises. Texas knocked them down, but the Heels got off the mat against UCLA. Overall, there were some valuable lessons we all learned from the two-day event (apologies to St. Francis).

Concern about Big Men?

We touched on this after the Texas game. The concerns that arose after the Longhorns dominated inside the arc became even more valid after the Bruins made Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley non-factors on Friday. Over both games, the sophomore duo produced a combined 13 points, 15 rebounds, 7 turnovers and 12 fouls in 56 total minutes.

That is absolutely unacceptable if North Carolina is going to compete for an ACC title, a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, and a deep March run. As we’ve noted numerous times before, Brooks’ struggles aren’t a surprise. He’s playing out of position, and should benefit from a move to the “4” next season. Manley, however, has not shown signs of making the sophomore leap that was desperately needed and expected. For this team to reach their absolute highest potential Manley must be a consistent factor.

Hopefully they just needed some of the rust knocked off after dominating low-level opponents for the first few weeks. Maybe. Possibly. Dear God please.

The coaching staff very well may turn back to a guard-oriented lineup in the coming weeks. That would not be a surprise and many expected that to happen prior to ACC competition. That doesn’t absolve the conventional lineup from the responsibility of producing when called upon. If Brooks and Manley cannot handle the physicality, effort, and skill of top teams in the country, the Heels biggest strength – depth and versatility – are severely limited.

Importance of the Back-up PG

Last year’s team was missing a critical component of UNC’s best teams; a back up point-guard. This season, that hasn’t been a concern with Seventh Woods arguably being equally effective as Coby White when on the court. Yet, when Woods suffered a concussion on Tuesday and was ruled out of the Texas and UCLA games, most fans likely shrugged. Coby could handle it, right?

Many of us here at Tar Heel Blog knew better. Those fears were confirmed in the first half against Texas, when Leaky Black had his worst performance since arriving at Chapel Hill. He entered in relief of Coby White with the Heels holding a 17-5 lead. When he exited over five minutes later, the lead had shrunk to 23-18 and Texas had new life. When he returned to the point guard spot in the second half, the Texas lead ballooned to 11 before UNC began their comeback.

Compare that with his performance against UCLA. In the second half, he came in for White with 16:22 remaining and UNC leading 52-51. When he exited over six minutes later at 10:15, the Heels led 65-62. That included a sequence where he blocked a lay-up, got the loose rebound, and fired a full court bounce pass to Kenny Williams for an easy lay-up. Those six minutes were a stark difference from the previous day and a major reason the Heels were able to maintain momentum in the 94-78 victory.

Black showed great growth and maturity to bounce back against the Bruins, and he certainly was not the reason the Heels lost against Texas. Regardless, these two games showed the value of a great back-up point guard. It may even be the most important position on this year’s team.

Explosive Offense

Through seven games, North Carolina is averaging 96.6 points per game. That’s the 6th highest scoring average in the nation. More surprisingly, that’s the highest average through seven games in the Roy Williams era. It is not going to stay that high, but after this weekend it’s not crazy to think this team could rival the 2008-2009 team that averaged 89.8 points per game.

No, the competition hasn’t been stellar and stats are always inflated in November. Those are valid points. However, Texas entered the weekend in the top 10 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjust defensive efficiency rankings. North Carolina hung 89 on them in a loss despite shooting just 44% from the floor and committing 17 turnovers. This team just gets buckets.

Every game, they are finding new ways to score. Coby White finally showed his full offensive repertoire for two consecutive games in Vegas. Nassir Little exploded onto the scene, both literally and figuratively. Kenny Williams finally got loose and looked like the do-everything stud we all expected. Luke Maye has been sluggish, but he’s still averaging 14.4 and 8.6 (plus, it’s hard to scoff at him shooting 80% from the foul line). Cam Johnson, despite a mini-slump in Vegas, is working his way onto an NBA roster.

Granted, they are inconsistent. That was on display against Texas, when UNC raced out to a 17-5 lead in the first 4:33 and then only managed 17 points over the next 11(ish) minutes. Against UCLA, the first half deficit reached 10 points when the Heels only scored two points over a four minute stretch.

Some of that can be blamed on point guard troubles (see above). It’s also a perk of watching Roy Williams coach in November, when he throws lineups at a dartboard and players can struggle to get into a flow. That hasn’t stopped them from having the third highest Adjusted Offensive Efficiency Rating (AdjO) in basketball at 118.2. That should only increase as everyone becomes more comfortable.

Bring on Michigan.