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UNC at Duke: Three Things Learned

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Slim margins, putting teams away, and the importance of the ACC Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina played at Duke on Saturday night.

North Carolina lost.

What else did we learn?

Slim Margins

In the first half, Roy played all 12 of his scholarship players. The bench gave positive minutes and provided critical rest for the starters. However, this UNC team is not deep like previous years, and in order to match up for 40 minutes against the best teams, the Heels just don't have much room for error. Four of five starters scored in double-figures last night, and it wasn’t enough. They needed all five to do so.

That had been a theme throughout the year, especially against teams that most people would reasonably expect UNC to beat. Whether it was a 1 point loss against Florida State, the OT loss to NC State, or the 35-foot dagger against Miami, time and time again the Heels showed heart, just to come up short. Mistakes or mental lapses that were “fixable” in previous years because of talent of depth turn into glaring (if not, exaggerated) weakness

Against top teams like Michigan State in November, and Duke last night, that margin of error is non-existent. The starting five can beat anyone on any given night, as they have proven against Michigan, Ohio State, and Duke. They can also lose to anyone on any given night, like Wofford.

Both teams showed up on Saturday. One in the first half and a different team in the second half.

Putting Teams Away. Or Not.

Early in the second half, a Cameron Johnson three pushed the UNC lead to 42-29. It felt like the Heels were teetering on the edge of either burying the Blue Devils or letting them back into the game. We all know what happened. It was the same movie with the same ending.

That has also been a recurring theme throughout the year. Pick an ACC team not named Boston College or Pittsburgh and ask yourself what games have the Heels wrapped up before the final four minutes? Wake Forest, Florida State, Clemson (twice), NC State (twice), and Notre Dame (in South Bend), were all single digit wins or losses. Many of those wins saw UNC threaten to blow the doors off the gym at least once, if not multiple times.

North Carolina only has five double-digit victories in conference play. Two of those, Pitt and Boston College were true blow-outs. The other three?

  • Georgia Tech, hung around an eight point deficit for much of the second half.
  • Notre Dame, in Chapel Hill, was a four-point game with six minutes to go.
  • Louisville trailed by seven with 3:56 to go.

Nobody should ever count out a team led by Theo Pinson and Joel Berry. That duo rivals any team in UNC history on their ability to close a game. Unfortunately, too often it just feels as though opponents shouldn’t even be able to put the Heels in those situations. Whether they force quick and ill-advised shots or forget any semblance of what constitutes good defense, the 2017-18 Heels have played with fire too often. For a team with so much experience and passion, it’s mystifying to see a lack of a killer instinct.

While there is no shame in losing at Cameron, for a few minutes, as has happened so often this season, the game was there for the Heels to put away. They just didn’t.

The ACC Tournament Matters

Conference tournaments are weird. Some think they are pointless. Some think too much importance is placed on them. Others argue that they prove if a team is hot or not heading into the NCAA tournament. Whatever your opinion is, the truth is that these conference shindigs really do matter. This season, more so than previous years, that is especially true for UNC’s prospects of a favorable seed.

There’s no other way to put this: North Carolina needs at least two quality wins next week in Brooklyn to guarantee a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. As Duke’s four-game run last season proved, a strong showing against quality teams can catch the committee’s eye. They used that conference tournament run to turn an anticipated 3 or 4 seed into a “favorable” 2 seed.

If North Carolina hopes to take advantage of an equally high seed, they’ll need some similar fortunes. In order to make the semi-finals, they have to beat the winner of Tuesday’s Syracuse/Wake Forest game on Wednesday night and then handle Miami on Thursday. That would potentially give UNC two more top-50 RPI victories.

Just to remind you, UNC beat WFU and Syracuse by four points each. They lost to Miami by 3. These are not the easier matchups that UNC has been accustomed to the last few years.

With a short bench, small margins of error, and the willingness to let teams hang around, Brooklyn is full of obstacles and trap games. However, if the Heels can get to Friday, most fans will breathe a little easier.

I imagine the coaching staff and players will too.