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.
After over a week off, the Heels returned to the hardcourt with a resounding victory over highly ranked Gonzaga. It was an impressive outing on the national stage and proof that this team can beat anyone in the country.
Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .
This team can score. There is simply no doubt about it. At 94.3 points per game, the Heels rank third in the country in scoring, just ahead of the Zags whom they just defeated, and a couple of points ahead of a team full of freshmen that the Zags defeated. The most impressive aspect of this prolific scoring squad is that no single player is averaging over 20 points per game. In fact, Cameron Johnson is leading the team at 16.6 points per game. Four players are averaging double figures and Kenny Williams is the best shooting 7.7 points per game player in the country. Teams with this level of scoring diversity will not go on a lot of droughts.
To put this in perspective, the highest scoring Tar Heel teams ever were 1986-87 (91.3) and 1988-89 (90.0). That means this year’s team is scoring at a historic rate.
So what is there to be worried about? 232. That is Carolina’s scoring defense rank at 73.7 points per game. The team has given up 80 or more points three times in ten games, gave up 78 to UCLA, and 76 to St. Francis. 90 to Gonzaga without their best three-point shooter. “That’s not adjusted for pace!” You may complain. And to be fair, UNC is only 95th in the country in defensive points per possession (0.951) and an actually respectable 30th in opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency. But the cracks have been exposed time and again against good teams, and the Heels need to tighten up if they want to make a run for the ACC title.
Against Gonzaga, the offense continually put pressure on the undermanned visitors from the West Coast. 25 points from Johnson, 20 from Luke Maye, 15 from Coby White and 14 from Seventh Woods (in what was likely the best game of his career). That kind of scoring output at home should have resulted in a 25 point blowout, not a contest that hung on the brink of double digits. This team is going to have to make stops and except for the second half against UCLA, they have not demonstrated a consistent ability to do so.
Feeding the issue of scoring defense are the turnovers. The Heels had 23 on Saturday, but surely 14 per game for the season is not too bad, right? 215th nationally. Now certainly pace, again, plays in to the stat. Maybe; on a per-possession basis, the Heels rank 113th with turnovers on 17.5% of their possessions. That’s not great, but not catastrophic. But consider this: With an offensive efficiency of 1.168 points per possesssion, reducing the turnover rate by a mere 5 percentage points would result in 6 more points per game (bringing the total to over 100).
This team is too good to play defense this poorly and turn the ball over this much.
A Word of Wisdom from MGD . . .
Despite my concerns about defense and turnovers, Saturday was an impressive win. MGD noted, “that was a great offensive effort and a very good home win. They needed to get a big W.” It has been an up and down first six weeks. There have been some very good games, but none yet in a winning effort against an elite team. That changed on Saturday.
The question will be how this game serves as a launching platform for the rest of the season. With only three non-conference games remaining, the time for tune-ups is coming to a close and the time to get serious is near. This team will certainly be a threat in March. They need to be a force.
Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.
After a difficult non-conference home game, the Heels will have an easy stretch before conference play, right? Nope. Continuing the trend of difficult early season games, the Heels head to Chicago to take on Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic. Both teams sit at 8-2 with a loss each to a current top five team. The Wildcats’ young lineup has not been quite as good as anticipated, but they still put up 85 points per game and hit threes at a nearly 37% clip. It should be a high scoring affair.
Carolina needs to take care of the ball and make Kentucky work to take contested jump shots. If all else fails, just score, score, score.
It is a luxury to pick apart a win against the fourth ranked team in the country. I’m not sure if it was the weather, or the season, or just the schedule, but Saturday felt like the first true basketball day of the year. The Heels did not disappoint. I cannot wait for Saturday.