What a difference a week can make. Riding high after a convincing win against Gonzaga, most people expected Carolina to take care of a Kentucky team that lacked a signature win on the season. Instead, Kentucky made the plays and Carolina couldn’t stop giving the ball away, leading to a frustrating 80-72 loss in the Windy City.
So what did we learn from this loss?
Carolina is inexperienced where it matters the most
The up and down nature of the season so far has been puzzling for people looking at a squad with three seniors in Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, and Cam Johnson. How can they look so good at once and look horrid at the other?
The answer is that those players play the 2, 3, and 4 positions for the Tar Heels. At the positions that matter most in the Carolina scheme, the 1 and the 5, the Tar Heels are thin on experience and teams can take advantage of that.
Start with the point guard, perhaps the most important position in the Carolina scheme. Thanks to the injuries that Seventh Woods has had overcome his first two years, he just didn’t get the experience at the point that Joel Berry before him had gotten. It put him at a huge disadvantage and caused coach Roy Williams to go with freshman Coby White as the starter.
It’s easy to see on the court why White has been named the starter, as he’s faster and causes the chaos that's needed to run the break, but from a production standpoint, White really has only been able to hang his hat on the Vegas games. Outside of Las Vegas, a total of 8 games, White is shooting 31-82 for a paltry .378 percent, 11-37 from three (.297), and is only averaging 9.6 points per game, while at the same time only averaging 3.3 assists and 2.6 turnovers. These are not numbers that you want for the point guard who is getting the bulk of your minutes, as White has in each of the games thus far.
So, when you rely on a freshman as your point guard, you’re going to get games like Saturday where he couldn’t hold on to the ball and the offense just seemed stalled multiple times. Williams tried to send a message to White by subbing in Woods early in the second but ultimately, he knows that this team is only going to go as far as White goes, and he played a season-high 29 minutes. Be prepared for more games like this.
The other key position on the court, the 5, has a rotation of Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley playing high minutes as only sophomores. The kicker here is that Brooks is the starter, but is playing outside of his natural position of the 4 thanks some guy named Luke Maye playing at that spot. The team plays better with Brooks on the court this season, that was made quickly apparent when he picked up two quick fouls in the first half and Roy had to play a combination of Manley, Maye, and Leaky Black to help against a superior front line that Kentucky put out.
The fact is that Carolina doesn’t have a true five that they can count on like a Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks. The hope is with Armando Baccot coming in next season and Maye graduating, the front court will look a lot more like what we are used to, and with Woods a senior and White a sophomore, the 1 will be more solid. For now, Tar Heel fans are going to have to continue to experience growing pains in the two spots it matters the most in the Roy Williams system.
Turnovers are kind of important
There’s a reason this was number one in my things to look at on Friday. They turned the ball over fewer times, 17, than against Gonzaga, and they shot it the same number of times, 64. However, against Gonzaga they made 35 of those shots and against Kentucky they only made 27. As mentioned, good shooting will hide a lot of problems, and poorer shooting will magnify mistakes.
It wasn’t just the turnovers, though, but that so many of them felt unforced. Between Coby White inexplicably fumbling the ball multiple times, to lazy passes, to Cameron Johnson fumbling the ball out of bounds on a beautiful pass on the secondary break, it really just felt like Carolina shot themselves in the foot too many times. Eleven of the nineteen turnovers were on Kentucky steals. All those turnovers killed any momentum that Carolina could ever build.
That this team continues to not be able to take care of the ball is beyond concerning. The thing is, they are still only averaging fourteen turnovers a game after the Kentucky game, so if you do the math where they had 23 and 17 the last two, it means that number is getting worse, not better. This team can truly be scary if it took care of the ball better, but now there’s real reason to be concerned that it will be a problem for them the entire season.
Losing the rebounding battle is not a good sign.
Kentucky won the total rebounding margin 43-33, and perhaps more importantly they won the offensive boards 10-5. If you recall, Carolina won the margin against Gonzaga 42-21, and offensive boards were 14-5. When you can’t take care of the ball and the other team gets to the ball off missed shots, that’s going to be a recipe for a loss.
A lot of credit goes to the size Kentucky had, which is probably the best group they’ve faced this season. Reid Travis had experience against this team last year, knew he could get his shots, and that experience versus the bigs Carolina could throw made a huge difference in the game. Kentucky was able to turn the game into a half court affair, and that gave them more chances to get to the ball and severely limited the tempo Carolina likes to run at.
This is actually the first loss where Carolina lost the rebound battle, which is why losing the battle of the boards is such a bad sign. If they can win the rebounding battle in the losses against Texas and Michigan, then you know they are in trouble when another team beats them on the boards. Sadly, as mentioned above in the first thing learned, this is going to be something they fight all season as it’s tough to expect either Brooks or Manley to make a big leap in time for the postseason.