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UNC basketball: Kenny Williams is back, and so are the Tar Heels

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Williams is finding his shot and Carolina is finding its groove.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly two weeks ago, just before Carolina took on Pittsburgh, I touched on how important it was for Kenny Williams to break his slump for the Tar Heels, who were in the midst of a three-game losing streak. Kenny and the Heels responded by throttling Pitt, 96-65, and winning three games in five days over the likes of Duke, NC State, and Notre Dame. It’s no coincidence that during that stretch, Williams shot 14-25 (56%) from beyond the arc, effectively ending his slump.

It’s almost laughable how different the feeling around this team was after losing its third straight at Clemson compared to now. It seemed like the wheels were starting to come off, and a select portion of the fanbase was getting ready to jump ship. The Heels were in uncharted territory, sitting at 5-5 in the conference with the majority of its most difficult games still to be played. Yet, here we are.

The North Carolina Tar Heels are now 20-7 overall and 9-5 in the ACC, putting them squarely in fourth-place in the conference standings. The early bracket reveal had Carolina as a three-seed in the NCAA tournament. All of a sudden, this team is firmly back in the national conversation, and you can bet opposing teams do not want to see them in the big dance. So, how did the Tar Heels pull off such a turnaround?

Many will tell you it’s defense, and they’re not necessarily wrong. Still, UNC has allowed its opponents to shoot 45% and put up 74.5 points during its four game winning streak. Both of those numbers are worse than the Heels’ season averages (42% and 73.3). While there’s no question the defensive intensity has ramped up, the re-emergence of Kenny Williams has been a catalyst.

In Williams’ first ten conference games, he shot 13-52 (25%) from deep. His hot shooting has already pushed that number to 35% and it figures to keep rising. It’s difficult to say what exactly had been plaguing him before. He swears that his confidence never wavered, but you get the feeling that there’s a difference when he goes up to shoot now. Regardless, the ball is finally going in the hoop again and that’s all that matters.

In games where Williams makes two or more threes, the Tar Heels are 14-2 this season. Offensively, Carolina is simply a different team when Williams is making shots. Not only that, but Williams is a different player when he’s making shots.

A lot of times, it’s easy for players to lose their focus when they are missing shots. That rings true even for a player who brings as much consistent energy as Williams. There’s a noticeable discrepancy in his engagement on the defensive end when he’s knocking down perimeter shots. Williams, who has recorded six steals during the Tar Heels’ winning streak, tends to feed off his success on one end of the court and translate it to the other end. That’s not to say Williams necessarily has to make shots to affect the game, just that he’s a different monster when he’s doing so.

Carolina will need Williams to sustain his high level of play as they travel to Louisville on Saturday to take on the Cardinals.