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Eight takeaways from UNC’s first eight games: Part II

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We weren’t lying with the title of the first part... mostly

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

5) The rebounding leaves something to be desired.

It’s not weak, but not UNC-esque. The Heels are snatching 58.4% of all rebounds, ninth-best in the nation, which sounds good and is good. However, offensive rebounding, long Carolina’s specialty, has not been as dominant. UNC is “only” 27th in that category at 37.5 percent. It’s still a stat that all but 26 other schools, apparently, would love to boast, but the Heels really need to drive up that ORB% into the 40s like the consecutive finalist teams in 2016 and 2017. The Heels can expect their outside shooting to improve at least a smidgen, but in the event that it doesn’t, attacking the basket and competing for offensive boards will be crucial.

It’s hard to know exactly how to excel in this area with the same personnel (again, this isn’t a weakness per se). Maye has rebounded pretty well, but his hands get tip-tappy in confined spaces and sometimes he forgets to box out, which is non-negotiable for a player of his ilk. Brooks, meanwhile, has done a better job on the offensive than defensive boards. Manley has been hard to get a grasp on altogether. Sliding Little up to the power forward position from time to time might unlock a boost of production in this department.

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

6) Kenny Williams has been out of sorts, but is still one of the best and most important players.

My man Kenny is on the struggle bus, going through an utterly painful start to his senior season. If you had asked me before the season which UNC player I thought would suffer the fewest slumps in 2018-19, it would have been Williams. His problems have been mostly, but not exclusively, shooting-related.

Williams is averaging 7.1 points, 4.5 assists, and 2.4 rebounds in 26.4 minutes per game. His minutes are actually down almost five per outing from last season, so the per-minute totals aren’t all that off, and his assists are way up. He seems to have interpreted well the departures of Berry and Theo Pinson – the playmakers are gone, so he needed to step up from a facilitating perspective.

But holy cow those shooting percentages: 19-of-51 from the field (37.3%), 8-of-31 from 3 (25.8%), and 11-of-14 from the free throw line (78.6%). OK, that last one is respectable. Yet that small sample size is also part of the problem – Williams needs to draw more fouls, which has never been his strength. He has not averaged even two free throw attempts per game in any of his four seasons.

Believe it or not, Williams has combined to shoot 9-of-15 from the field and 5-of-9 from distance over the last two games, which shows: 1) just how poor his first six games were (10-of-36 and 3-of-22, respectively); and that 2) hopefully he has found his stroke. This stretch does include a couple of garbage-time threes, but I’ll take what I can get for now.

Williams started out the season harassing one of the best scorers in the country, Wofford’s Fletcher Magee, into a 7-of-23 shooting night that helped Carolina avoid a sequel nightmare. Williams was held scoreless, but he grabbed six rebounds and dished out five assists in the hard-fought 78-67 win. Without this effort and with a possible second loss to the Terriers in as many years, how much more would we be *****ing about the Heels right now? Kenny was at least the second-most important UNC player on that opening night, despite three 17-plus-point scorers.

Williams’ highlight before the last two games was a 4-of-6 shooting night in a win over Stanford and the lowlight was a 0-of-7 outing in a 49-point blowout over Elon. Other than that, he’s had a good number of assists and the best perimeter defense the Heels have to offer, alongside Woods, which is great. But you just don’t feel his impact as much as needed. Williams must begin/continue knocking down shots and deploying some of that beautiful midrange game he flashed at times last season. Like Roy Williams has said, Williams does so much to affect the game outside his shooting that he is deservedly never going to lose a starting spot as a Heel, but “I would like you to make a shot before I die.” So would we, Roy. So would we.

Johnson and Maye have posted better offensive numbers, more so earlier than recently, but, to be clear, I am not advocating for Kenny to be the scapegoat of the senior class. Little-must-start adherents should look in a different direction. Bad shooting numbers for five of the first six games in what hopes to be a 40-tilt season are not nearly a justification to bench Williams. If Carolina makes a deep postseason run, it means Williams will have performed no worse than the third-best overall player on the team over the rest of the campaign.

7) Austin, we have a problem.

Seriously, what is with this?! Carolina has now lost four straight and eight of the last nine matchups against a football school with an appalling primary color. As far as I can tell, only two of those Longhorns outfits were superior teams – in the second round of the 2004 NCAA tournament in Roy’s first year at UNC and during the 2009-10 season because you know why.

Do they take it out on Roy for being an ex-Kansas coach? Williams did win seven of his eight showdowns with Texas during his time in Lawrence; it looks like he felt guilty doing so and has kindly decided to return the favor.

We’re hoping Mack Brown’s return as UNC football coach can signify the end, er, the beginning of the end, of this ridiculous curse. The aforementioned NCAA tourney loss to the Longhorns was the first hardwood bout between the teams since Brown had bolted for the Texas gridiron six and a half years earlier. And it hasn’t been a pretty matchup since.

8) No matter how well this season turns out, you will not hear much about it from the national media.

No doubt, Duke is extremely good. Coach K has some impressive athletes and NBA talents on this year’s squad. Their margin of victory has been through the roof (two points higher per game than UNC). Their highlight reels have been social media-worthy. But, uh, how about some actual college basketball analysis and coverage?

Last I checked, the Devils did lose a real live Division I competition, right? The night after Jay Williams said they could beat the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, right? Did you notice how comically fast ESPN went from saying Duke was unbeatable by professional teams to (if they said anything in reference to the Devils losing at all), “Slow down, temper expectations, no one ever thought they would be perfect”? You’re right – nobody but you. That’s where I learned Duke is indomitable…from you!

No, ESPN, you shouldn’t cut away THREE times from an OVERTIME battle between two great programs in Louisville and Michigan State to remind us that Duke is about to host an unranked opponent. Sweet, thanks.

I get that ESPN has a vested interest in Duke’s stars at it pertains to their very imminent NBA careers and ESPN’s impending documentary about Duke Basketball. But please try to frame just a little bit of it within the context of their own team, maybe? They do have non-freshman superstar teammates and are a college basketball team that has college basketball goals and plays college basketball games against other college basketball teams.

Honest to goodness, I bet a substantial portion of people who would call themselves at least casual college basketball fans haven’t yet heard of Coby White or Nassir Little. Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish, though? I promise they’re following their instagrams.

Then again, look what I just did: talked about Duke in a UNC article. I guess I’m equally guilty.