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UNC Basketball: Eight takeaways from first eight games

This piece might have sung a slightly different tune before Wednesday night.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

This is part one of a two-part series. Check back tomorrow for the other four things we’ve learned in Carolina’s first eight games.

Carolina has played eight games, or one-quarter of its 2018-19 regular season schedule, which is about a good sample size to start formulating a general idea of what this year’s squad is. To be sure, college basketball teams often take a new form three-quarters or even later into a season, and Coach Roy Williams’ Heels have proven to be no exception.

Think about how UNC fans felt on Feb. 6, 2016 (also the night before my beloved Panthers broke hearts by crapping the bed in Super Bowl 50), when the Heels had lost consecutive tight ACC road battles at Louisville and Notre Dame. Or on Feb. 27, 2017, when Carolina mustered only 43 points in an ugly road defeat at Virginia. In both seasons, Carolina ended up playing in the national title game within two months of these defeats, winning the second one over Gonzaga.

Speaking of Gonzaga, the top-ranked Bulldogs visit the Smith Center in two weekends, followed by a neutral-court showdown with Kentucky. Then come home games against perennial mid-major pests Davidson and Harvard, picked to finished third and first in the Atlantic 10 and Ivy League, respectively. Afterward, the Heels enter league play in the greatest conference in the country. It’s not a schedule you will see many other teams routinely match.

Indeed, Williams holds an implicit or explicit philosophy of potentially sacrificing a couple of early-season wins and a pretty record in the name of player and team development. Its micro corollary is his general refusal to take timeouts as a momentum-killing or play-designing tactic. We saw it all on full display in a disheartening 84-67 loss at Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Wednesday night.

It’s why Carolina earned (or admittedly, I should say, received) a two-seed in last season’s NCAA tournament despite 10 losses. It’s why the 2010-11 squad posted a 14-2 ACC record and regular season championship despite suffering four setbacks by mid-December and coming off Williams’ worst season as a head coach. That doesn’t mean it’s not extremely frustrating in the moment year after year, as if you expect the current season to take on a different nature than past ones.

Of course, a harder schedule generally equals more defeats. Of course, it’s better to win at a higher rate towards the end of a season than the beginning. However, as opposed to many UNC fans, I do think it is somewhat important to avoid, let’s arbitrarily say, three-plus losses before the New Year. Oops, looks like we’ve got no margin for error in my book with that brutal slate coming up.

I point out that the only UNC championship squad that suffered a relatively high number of losses was the most recent one in 2016-17, with seven. And to be fair, they did lose three contests before the turn of the calendar (the last on New Year’s Eve, a 75-63 eyesore at lowly Georgia Tech).

A lot of that is attributable to the modern nature of the sport that includes more games and more parity, but I don’t think anyone is arguing that Joel Berry & Co. came close to touching the strength of the 2004-05 or 2008-09 champions (four Ls each). Perhaps no future teams will, because those were all-timers, and that’s just fine because a ring is a ring.

I have a strong suspicion that unlike last season, it is extremely doubtful the Heels would receive anything better than a four- or five-seed in the Big Dance if they suffer double-digit losses again. And yes, seeding is critical, despite the occasional outlier like the 2014 tournament.

While it is far too early to make any declarations about the season, the following are the first half of eight takeaways from the first eight outings that I feel confident have some long-term significance. In short, UNC is off to an uneven, but not dreadful, 6-2 start.

1) The freshmen are really good.

Handed the starting point guard job, Coby White has popped the most of the three freshmen. He kept the Heels afloat in the first loss of the season against Texas in the Las Vegas Invitational on Thanksgiving by scoring 33 points, turning what should have been at least a 15-point defeat into a 92-89 letdown with a legitimate chance at the end.

White then played his best all-around floor game of the season in the 94-78 consolation win against UCLA, scoring 19 points and dishing out eight assists. In the first half at Michigan, though, he had to go back to breathing life into the whole team, making four of his first six shots (finishing with 12 points) to keep the contest close before Carolina collapsed in a 17-point shakedown. White currently leads the Heels in scoring at 15.3 points per game.

Nassir Little, the highest-ranked recruit and a top NBA draft prospect, has flashed tremendous ability as well. He is averaging 11.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 0.5 blocks in 19.5 minutes per game. Little is a dominant athlete who is developing a feel for the college game, but admirably still letting the game come to him.

Leaky Black has perhaps been the most unheralded player, let alone freshman, on UNC to this point. He is posting 4.1 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 0.5 blocks in only 13.5 minutes. He is showing to be a smooth operator with solid instincts, though he hasn’t looked quite as impressive in limited point guard minutes, which many scouts have pinned as his natural, future position. Black let the Texas defense dictate too much when he was quarterbacking the offense for a brief stretch, but he has made several nice plays in a variety of spots in each of the games and is an intriguing long-term talent for the program.

You almost wish one of the three were a true post player to balance out the roster, but they have all been highly impressive so far. And maybe Little will soon evolve into a 4-man role to maximize his athleticism against college forwards.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee Tech at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

2) The offense is really good.

UNC suffered its worst offensive performance of the season by far against the Wolverines, but I don’t think it’s hard to argue that poor defense afflicted the entire squad after the first few minutes of the game (see #4 below). Otherwise, despite turnover problems at times (see #3 below) and just OK three-point shooting, the Heels have somehow managed to put up 49 or more points in half of their halves (8 of 16) and they are shooting 49% overall from the field. Seniors Cameron Johnson (15.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game) and Luke Maye (14.0 ppg and 9.4 rpg), along with the freshman duo of White and Little, have largely driven this seemingly-effortless attack.

When things are going well, Carolina has limitless scoring options in terms of both personnel and method. A lot of the offensive sets have worked well, and the Heels are getting small but cumulative contributions from all over the roster. Junior Brandon Robinson has 33 total points, energetic sophomore Garrison Brooks has averaged 9.3 points and 5.8 rebounds, and junior Seventh Woods has served as an excellent backup point guard to White before unfortunately missing the two Vegas outings due to a concussion.

There is one general thing to question here - why in both of UNC’s losses has the team raced out to a quick double-digit lead before rapidly, and I mean rapidly, letting it go? I think for the most part the succumbing is defensive- and turnover-induced, but it sure is puzzling.

3) The transition offense, though, is really not good.

I get it. The whole narrative on UNC is that if you keep them from running out in transition, you have a much better chance to win because that is their primary strength. We just heard it pregame from Michigan’s excellent coach John Beilein on the ESPN broadcast, and for the most part, sure, the Wolverines kept the Heels out many fast breaks in their big win. Fine, I’m not denying that basic premise.

What I am suggesting, though, is that the Heels have been getting the benefit of the doubt for at least a couple of seasons now in terms of how well they actually run their own transition offense. This is slightly different than saying that opponents shouldn’t focus on the connection between an active UNC break and that opponent’s chances of winning. Everyone agrees that is a big key.

This season, I have conservatively counted no fewer than one instance per game in which a UNC player grabbed a defensive rebound, turned, and literally threw it directly to an opposing player as if he were an outlet target wearing baby blue. Other teams do not do this nearly as regularly – even those that play fast. This run, run, run sloppiness is something I have observed for a few seasons and is a reason I’m sometimes perplexed by Carolina’s transition reputation, even though admittedly the stats and coaches around the country may not back me up.

The Heels are averaging 13 turnovers per game, on only 13.9% of possessions (42nd best in the country of 351), quite strong numbers considering pace and style. And despite my anxiety exhibited above, I acknowledge that the fast UNC attack is still a net positive because typically more points are produced than taken away.

The turnovers do seem to come in crucial bunches, though, and many out of sheer lack of focus and intensity. Some come just as the Heels have put together a mini-run only for the blunder to turn the momentum on its head, as happened via one particular outlet pass by Sterling Manley against the Wolverines with the score 21-11 in UNC’s favor following four empty Michigan trips (Robinson was officially credited with the turnover).

Plus, the Heels are only forcing roughly an equal number of giveaways from their opponents, on 16.8 percent of possessions, which ranks 197th. The usual assumption is that if UNC can’t score in transition, then they have trouble scoring in the half-court. But that is just not at all true so far.

As others have offered, some of the miscues might be explained by teammates adjusting to White’s super turbo style, which indicates the situation could slowly improve. I also think UNC can fix a decent amount of the problem by adopting a simple mantra of “Look before you pass.”

4) The defense is also really not good.

The annual reclamation project of Carolina’s defense is underway. With the exception of the second half of the win over UCLA, this side of the ball has been pretty terrible all season to put it bluntly. The Heels rank 202nd in the country in opponent points per game (74.2) and 158th in opponent effective field goal percentage (48.9), continuing deeply disturbing trends from recent seasons.

Some numbers are slightly better than last season, but my eyes don’t seem to notice. For example, opponents are shooting only 33.2% from 3, not bad! But… the Heels are allowing foes to fire over 42% of their shots from that distance (83rd most in the country), hence the mediocre-at-best eFG%.

It’s the usual culprits – not containing dribble penetration, not communicating, and over-helping off of perimeter shooters. (For the last time, three points are worth more than two! 1.5 times more, in fact!) That last bugaboo actually hasn’t been quite as much of an issue this season, relative to recent UNC renditions, that is (Joel Berry shout out). But now paper soft interior defense has made up for it. Probably the most frightening observation is that Maye has routinely shown he has trouble offering any resistance down low. Brooks and Manley haven’t had much better luck, either.

As frequent a refrain as the one on UNC’s transition offense is the following: The Heels will not be able to compete nationally, or even in the top echelon of the ACC, without showing steady improvement on the defensive end.

We’ll be back with the second and final part of this tomorrow, so check back to see the other four things we’ve learned to this point.