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UNC basketball: The Return of Seventh Woods

The sophomore point guard is expected to see the court for the first time since November.

NCAA Basketball: Bucknell at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

All signs point to Seventh Woods getting his first minutes since November 29th on Thursday, and it couldn’t come at a better time. After dropping three of its last four, the Tar Heels get set for the most crucial game of the season to date in what will be the first installment of the UNC-Duke rivalry. Their dominating 96-65 win over Pittsburgh was a step in the right direction, but Carolina still desperately needs to get back on track, and this is a great opportunity.

Discussing the deficiencies that have caused the Tar Heels to drop five ACC games is starting to sound like a broken record. The biggest thing that always jumps out is their lackluster perimeter defense. Pitt, who now sits at 0-11 in the conference, reignited that concern in the first half on Saturday by hitting 8-14 from deep. However, the Tar Heels played much better defensively in the second half and ultimately held the Panthers to 10-30.

Another concern has been the Heels’ inability to force turnovers and get run outs. The sixteen turnovers committed by Pitt marked the first time in four games Carolina forced its opponent to give the ball up more than ten times. It was also the first time they won the turnover battle in that many games. It’s no coincidence that the Tar Heels lost those previous three games. Their failure to force turnovers has made it difficult to play Carolina basketball and get out in transition and, in turn, opposing teams have bested them at their own game.

Lastly, Joel Berry II has had to take on a much bigger workload without Woods in the lineup. After averaging 29.7 minutes per game through his first 12 games, Berry is now averaging 34.3 mpg in ACC play. Even before Jalek Felton was suspended by the University, he never earned enough trust from the coaching staff to spell Berry for long stretches.

It would be unrealistic to assume Woods will magically fix all of these problems. However, each of these areas has been noticeably worse since his injury, so it’s fair to assume his absence has been a bigger impact than originally thought.

Defensively, Woods could be the spark this team has been missing. The Heels’ perimeter defensive struggles have been somewhat of a mystery in that it’s been difficult to pin them on any particular player or method. Still, it can’t hurt to insert an athletic guard capable of moving his feet on defense. Not only that, but before he went down, Woods was among the best on the team in terms of creating turnovers.

Woods is averaging 2.2 steals per 40 minutes, albeit in a small sample size. The Tar Heels will need him to be active defensively in order to negate the size and athleticism of Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter. It’ll be extremely difficult for the Tar Heels to win this game in the paint, which makes it important for the guards to be aggressive and make the bigs of Duke uncomfortable.

Basketball abilities aside, the most crucial aspect of Woods’ return is allowing Berry to stay rested. We all know it’ll be Berry, not Woods, anchoring the offense in the last five minutes. Giving Berry some relief before that point will let him go full throttle down the home stretch, which is when he’s at his best. Above everything else, this team needs to keep Berry refreshed and in one piece as they enter the toughest stretch of the season.