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Tar Heel Hangover: Getting ready for the home stretch

Thoughts on an up and down week and a look ahead.

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

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our Monday morning opportunity to review last week’s action, second guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: The State of the Team.

Tuesday was a largely uninspired loss at a raucous Little John Coliseum. After a thrilling second half comeback, the perimeter defense ultimately proved to be the Achilles’ heel in the closing moment. Inside of two minutes with the game tied, a poor cover on a perimeter screen left an open three. Shortly thereafter, it was an overplay that led to a layup and the game was out of reach. Disturbingly, both defensive breakdowns were by Kenny Williams, the best perimeter defender on the team.

Saturday was a different story. Although there was another slow start, a spurt to end the first half and a great push coming out of the locker room in the second half lead to a comfortable victory. Most notably, the fluid ball movement and quick passing lead to 29 assists on 36 field goals. It was a refreshingly comfortable victory.

One other note, when Pitt went to the 2-3 zone, Carolina was ready with a coordinated cross screen action from the wings that cleared the lane for point guard Theo Pinson. Pinson rifled a pass through the opening to Luke Maye for the easy two. This was great coaching and preparation. Very impressive stuff.

Words of Wisdom? A Thought from MGD.

“When they drive the ball, they look a lot better. It makes the threes more open and occasionally they even get fouled.”

The key here, is that the dribble-drive penetration has to come from all five positions on the floor. Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson are streaky drivers of the ball in that they seem to get on a roll taking it to the paint. Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams are much more reluctant to drive from the wings. Luke Maye will put the ball on the floor occasionally when isolated at the top of the key.

This needs to be a point of emphasis. A team full of good ball handlers has to take advantage of matchups by driving past defenders just as frequently as shooting over them. Saturday was a clinic in drive and kick, making the interior pass, and finishing strong at the rim.

Lying In Bed, I Am Worried About. . .

The number of threes that this team shoots. Early in the season, I predicted that, “This year will set the record for most threes attempted for a season. Teams will continue to look to the Warriors and say, ‘hey, if it works for them, why not us?’ The Heels are not immune from the trend. Although their 35 attempts through the first two games falls below last season’s average of nearly 20 per contest, it is only a matter of time (and the return of Cameron Johnson) before that number creeps above 22 or 23.”

Through 24 games, the 530 attempted three-pointers stands at an average of just over 22 per game. In the last four games, the total number of three-point attempts is 101.

Admittedly, my hyperbole in November about the ruin of college basketball due to the three-point shot was an exaggeration. At the least, however, the three continues to bring an unparalleled level of parity to the game. Perhaps this is what makes it so great, although even Seinfeld worried about chuckers. What the uptick means for the Heels, however, is that they will be more vulnerable in March.

It is time to start looking ahead to the big picture and protecting the potential weak points. Teams that shoot a lot of threes tend to have nights where they don’t make very many. Those nights lead to less points and more losses.

This is really part of the bigger discussion about why this team has scoring droughts and what can be done to prevent them. Balance seems to be the key, both in the types of shots and the players who take them.

Looking Ahead . . .

On Thursday, the devil will be in the details. A big win at home could jump start the momentum to a late season run a feared team in March. Losing at home will likely mean a middle of the pack finish in the league.

Of course, this game means so much more.

I have long defined myself in a way that is well-captured by Will Blythe in his outstanding book, To Hate Like This Is to be Happy Forever (an absolute must read for even casual fans). Blythe describes two types of people in the world. The first are, “Those for whom the word ‘home’ summons up an actual place that is wood-smoke fragrant with memory and desire, a place that one has no choice but to proudly claim, even if it’s a falling-down dogtrot shack, the place to which the compass always points, the place one visits in nightly dreams, the place to which one aims always to return, no matter how far off course the ship might drift.”

The second are, “Those citizens for whom home is a more provisional notion - the house or apartment in which one sleeps at night, as if American life were an exhausting tour of duty, and home, no matter how splendid, equaled a mere rest stop on the Interstate of Personal Advancement.”

As Blythe concludes, “When one roots for one team or another in the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, one is cheering as much for opposing concepts of American virtue as for adolescent geniuses of basketball.”

Amen Will Blythe. Count me among those for whom home is more than a building. It is the collective memory of victorious celebrations and devastating losses that bleed light blue. Home is family, friends, and uniting against everything that is wrong with the world. On Thursday, Duke will try to invade that home.

Go Heels!