UNC returned to the court yesterday, and earned a rather ho-hum 82-60 victory over the Davidson Wildcats. It wasn’t the most exciting or prettiest game, but it was exactly what the Heels needed in their penultimate tune-up for ACC play. As always, let’s check out a trio of lessons learned.
Why Garrison Brooks Starts
Brooks has been one of the more curious players this season. Odd turnovers, a lack of individual moves in the post, and an Isaiah Hicks-esque ability to earn fouls early and often have become normal. All of these traits were on display in the first four minutes yesterday. When Brooks exited at the 16:10 mark of the first half, he had two points, a missed lay-up, and three turnovers. Two of those turnovers were attributed to fouls on offense.
It would be natural to ask why he continues to be a mainstay in the starting lineup. The answer is not complicated. Brooks played 16 minutes. In those 16 minutes, Davidson only scored 11 points. Some quick subtraction shows us that in the 24 minutes with Brooks on the bench, the Wildcats scored 49 points. This is pretty easy to understand.
Bonus: Despite the early struggles, he still finished with 11 points on 5-10 shooting.
Double-Bonus: Brooks is also UNC’s second-leading rebounder at 6.3 rebounds per game. He’s not even playing 20 minutes per game.
It’s true the Heels don’t have a dominant big man like past UNC teams. Brooks, however, is only a sophomore, playing out of position, and brings the essentials elements that are missing from the rest of the team. Defense, rebounding, and consistent effort. Yes, he is inconsistent on offense, but this team doesn’t need a stud big man who gets buckets to be successful. They need a serviceable option to do the dirty work.
Coby Turns a Corner?
The first five minutes were rough to watch. Turnovers, missed opportunities, and overall sloppiness were rampant in the opening minutes. In other words, it was exactly what one should expect from a noon game over Christmas break.
However, I’d argue those five minutes were the most encouraging sign that Coby White took the next step in his development. He played in control, initiated the secondary break and motion offenses, made extra passes, and fed the post. Scoring took a backseat to getting the rest of the team involved. White was not the reason for the erratic start. That has not been the case for much of this season.
The result? Seven assists for Coby and a balanced offensive attack from the Heels. Four Heels scored in double figures, and 10 players played 10 or more minutes. UNC finished with 20 assists on 26 field goals and an assist rate of 77%, their highest of the season. Seven different players recorded at least one assist. Teamwork makes the dream work.
White also found time to attempt seven field goals, though his shooting woes outside of Vegas continued. He finished just 1-7 with seven points, but I’d argue it was one his best performances of the season. He effectively did everything that has made Seventh Woods so valuable this season.
Compared to Gonzaga and Kentucky, the pace may have looked slow. Those games, however, were anomalies – even for this explosive Tar Heel squad. Saturday’s pace should be a goal to strive for. The Heels finished with 75 possessions —still higher than historical norms — with plenty of room for improvement. After that slow start, where they scored just 5 points in the first five minutes, UNC put up 77 points the rest of the way. Coby’s willingness to be more patient was a major reason for that success.
About That “Small” Lineup
Early in the season, once a game is out of reach, we have become accustomed to seeing Roy try creative lineup combinations. However, as ACC season approaches, that perceived randomness evolves into lineup experiments with very specific goals. Sometimes that’s shortening the rotation. Yesterday, that meant an extended look at a “small” ball lineup.
My suspicions were confirmed after the game by this tweet.
A season-high 7:27 for the White-Williams-Johnson-Little-Maye lineup, which led 17-4 in those minutes.— Adrian Atkinson (@FreeportKid) December 29, 2018
Roy made it a point to give those five extended time together on the court in a low-threat environment against an opponent who was missing their leading scorer. The increased playing time weren’t solely due to Brooks’ foul trouble. Those five were also on the court together for over three minutes late in the second half, when the game was no longer in doubt.
Most will also focus on the end results, but that’s largely fool’s gold and simply a perk of the process. This lineup will not (usually) be as successful against ACC competition as it was against Davidson. As we explained after Kentucky, Little has been inconsistent against top competition at the power forward position. Defensively, that particular combination will also be a nightmare to watch. That doesn’t mean that this lineup (or something very similar) won’t be necessary if North Carolina is going to compete in March.
For Little’s own continued development, and for UNC’s desire to reach their maximum potential, a smaller lineup to maximize athleticism and scoring will be mandatory. The more variety the Heels have, the more dangerous they will be.
Expect a similar development against Harvard on Wednesday.