This Wednesday, the Tar Heels will travel up to Ann Arbor to take on the undefeated Michigan Wolverines. Michigan is currently ranked as the 7th best team in the country, largely due to the beatdown they gave Villanova a couple of weeks ago.
UNC is coming off of a 1-1 performance in the Las Vegas Invitational, where they lost a tough game against Texas only to find a way to take down #17 UCLA. While the Heels were knocked out of the top 10 yesterday for failing to overcome the Texas curse, a win against Michigan would more than likely get them right back in the mix.
Without further ado, let’s look at three key factors going into Wednesday’s game.
Will Seventh Woods’ return impact Coby White?
Yesterday evening, Roy Williams announced that Seventh Woods attended practice, and is expected to play in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge against Michigan:
Per Roy Williams with @JonesAngell on the radio tonight: "@KingSev803 practiced today. He's completely free to play Wednesday night."— Adam Lucas (@jadamlucas) November 27, 2018
Woods sat out the two games played in Las Vegas due to a concussion he suffered after a collision with Brandon Huffman during practice. His absence allowed both Coby White and Leaky Black to split their time at the point guard position, with Coby White having two impressive performances. Against Texas, he finished the game with 33 points, two rebounds, and three assists. Against the Bruins, White had 19 points and one rebound, but stepped his game up facilitation-wise and finished with 8 assists.
Seventh Woods coming back from his injury is a great thing for Roy Williams’ squad, especially considering that the Heels had a hard time finding rhythm without Coby White on the floor against Texas. Leaky Black managed to turn things around against UCLA, however, logging five points, 1 rebound, two assists, and zero turnovers. Now that the freshman seem to have found their footing, Woods joining the mix should make for a deep, potent rotation...right? Excuse me for a moment, I will need to put on my tin foil hat for this one.
Truth be told, Coby White had not looked like the Coby White that he was by the time he finished high school. It’s easy to say that it is because the game changes when the kids get to college, which is true, but White has every tool possible to be dominant on the offensive side of the ball at this level. What we had seen instead were turnovers, missed shots, and forced plays. Granted, there’s external factors that definitely play a role — don’t think for a second that his teammates haven’t had to learn to adapt to his speed on the court. However, what if part of Coby White’s problem was that he had to worry about Seventh Woods?
Looking at things from a humanized perspective, Seventh Woods is an upperclassman that has found ways to make minimal mistakes, has done his best to lead on the floor, and hasn’t played outside of his game. Coby White is obviously very talented, but it could be that there has been a tinge of anxiety of losing his starting point guard job. After all, it’s not easy being a freshman point guard at UNC, and that’s a fact that is well-documented. Whoever is at that spot has to learn fast, or see their minutes go to the next man up. It could be that White is fully aware of this, and thus could’ve been the reason that some of his game was a bit forced prior to Thanksgiving weekend.
Now keep in mind: this is purely a theory, and I have no way of proving one way or another if this is true. Truth be told, players know that they run this risk no matter what on a day-to-day basis, especially on a Roy Williams team. However, it is definitely worth paying attention to Wednesday to see whether or not Coby White is able to continue the roll that he’s on, or if he will at least find a way to not make as many mistakes. Whether he does well or not, we’ll never know if this theory is true. However, I don’t think it’s something that can be ruled out completely.
Michigan’s issues with the perimeter
Michigan’s team this year has faced two worthy opponents in Villanova and Providence, with the rest of their schedule being against easy competition. When taking a look at the Villanova game specifically, the goal was to figure out what Michigan did right as opposed to what Villanova did wrong. What they did right against the Wildcats was that they played great defense, allowing them to shoot just 32% form the field and 20% from three. However, the glaring issue with that game was how bad perimeter shooting was for both teams. As it turns out, Michigan has a huge shooting problem.
Michigan’s best performance shooting from behind the arch so far comes from the game against George Washington, when they shot at a 50% clip from deep. When looking at every other game they’ve played so far, they have had multiple games where they didn’t even crack 30%, including games against Norfolk State and Holy Cross. Most recently, they shot 36.4% from three in their 83-55 win against Chattanooga. To sum it up: their perimeter shooting isn’t great.
Ideally, these perimeter woes will mean that UNC can focus on preventing dribble penetration and take care of things on the boards without being stretched out on the court. However, this is North Carolina Tar Heel basketball — someone is liable to get hot despite whatever struggles Michigan might be having. The player to keep an eye on here would be sophomore forward Isaiah Livers, who is currently shooting 50% from three off of 20 attempts.
Given UNC’s defensive struggles the past couple of games, it would be of their best interest to just lock down on every player that hits the floor. If Michigan doesn’t heat up from three, and if UNC can play defense without fouling, they should be in good shape.
Will UNC finally play an entire game?
The biggest struggle for the Tar Heels this year has been playing an entire 40 minutes of basketball. They came out looking like one of the best teams in the country in the early minutes of the Texas game, then disappeared for the second half of the game, and never returned for the first half of the UCLA game. Thankfully, after an unconfirmed spirited pep talk from Roy Williams at halftime, and they came out and played tough defense and provided help for Coby White on offense.
Unfortunately, this has been a pattern so far against Power Five opponents: the Heels ended up getting outscored by Stanford 38-46 in the second half, after demolishing them in the first half 52-26. While ideally there would be one or two things to point to, it’s honestly been a little bit of everything. Sometimes it’s turnovers, sometimes rebounding, sometimes shooting, sometimes...well, you get the point.
It’s pretty cut and dry: if the Tar Heels can’t find a way to play an entire game’s worth of quality basketball they will be in deep trouble. A true road game against a top-10 opponent doesn’t allow much room for error, and so they will have to play their most complete game of the season if they want to leave Ann Arbor with a win.