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Attempting to draw conclusions on playing time and defense in December.

NCAA Basketball: NC-Wilmington at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our Monday morning opportunity to review last week’s game, second guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

A back and forth first half against the Seahawks from UNC Wilmington turned into a blowout with a very strong second half. Cameron Johnson led the way with 21 points as the offense sputtered before roaring back to life. Coby White was sidelined with an ankle injury but the scoring was spread out and almost reached the century mark anyways.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

The non-conference schedule is starting to draw down and it is time to tighten the rotation a bit. It’s pretty hard to draw a ton of conclusions from a game against an outmatched opponent played without your Carolina starting point guard, but it did look like the starters’ minutes started to trend upward. It is also important to note that Brandon Robinson missed the game as well but his minutes would have likely replaced those of Andrew Platek. No one is getting regular play in the 30+ minute range but all of the starters plus Nassir Little got over 20 minutes and Sterling Manley was just under that with 18. From there, it was a drop off to the back up point guard for the game, Leaky Black, who logged 14 minutes.

Playing time will be a key stat to pay attention to on a go-forward basis. Plugging White back in the starting lineup, it is starting to look like a solid eight-man rotation with some time from Black and spot minutes from Robinson. Both of those reserves could play key minutes in conference play but they are rotating down to the 9th and 10th players for the team.

The question remains; will increased playing time for the starters and Little result in better chemistry? This is a bit of an unusual question for a team that is scoring so many points on a regular basis. Normally, conversations about a lack of flow and choppy playing time center around an inability to score. With this team, it seems that those questions relate more to the defense.

A Word of Wisdom from MGD . . .

“Well, the second half looked like they started to care a little. They still turn the ball over a lot and look lackadaisical at times on defense.” What My Grumpy Dad is honing in on is precisely what many fans are concerned about early in the season. This team is good enough on offense to only need to be mediocre on defense. They will be able to outscore a lot of teams. The problem is that the defense has been subpar to say the least. Again, the question is whether or not more minutes will mean better communication and more flow defensively.

As has been said far too many times in recent years, the high ball screen is a huge problem defensively. Honestly, I did not think that would be an issue this year. The team is long and athletic at the first three positions (or four when Maye plays center) and should have the ability to close out on space and shut down shooters. The issue has been that teams are just getting the ball directly to the basket. Whether opponents are driving or cutting and passing, the Tar Heel swiss cheese defense is not working.

It does not appear to be a single issue but rather is a confluence of factors. The guards are not keeping up with the ball handler on the perimeter. This really seems to be an issue for Coby White, who constantly trails his man. His height allows him to bother shooters from behind but once he encounters a screen then he falls too far out of position. A second issue is the interior defense. Everyone inside looks just a step or two slow, mostly from just being out of position. The good news is that the talent is there and these issues are fixable. The time for fixing them is now.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

After a long break, the Heels will welcome Gonzaga to Chapel Hill on Saturday. The Zags will no longer be ranked number one after losing to Tennessee, but they are still arguably the best team in the country and will certainly be a difficult matchup. Look for the Heels to value possessions more by turning it over less and getting good ball movement. Also, the crowd will be a big factor. This is a busy time of year, but the marquee matchup should generate a lot of energy and a rowdy group of fans. That it’s coming at the end of finals for students makes it all the more promising that the Dean Dome will be as live as it’s been all year.

Final Thoughts

An up and down non-conference schedule has meant there are still some questions about this UNC team. What’s clear is that there is plenty of room for improvement but also a ton of talent. Saturday will be an excellent test of both of those things.