The North Carolina Tar Heels are officially done with the regular season and will now turn their attention to the postseason. The finish to the season wasn’t exactly ideal, as the Heels dropped their final two games. Here are three things to watch as Carolina tries to right the ship in the ACC Tournament.
Joel Berry and Luke Maye
Each of these players were recently named first-team All-ACC, but neither looked the part in the regular season finale at Duke. It was largely assumed that the Blue Devils would make a run after being down ten at half, but encouragement could be found in that the Tar Heels’ two leading scorers were yet to make a serious impact. Surely, that was subject to change, right? Wrong.
Sure enough, the Blue Devils made their run, and while the Heels temporarily absorbed the blow, they ultimately collapsed in what became a 20-point second half swing. After scoring 14 points in the final five minutes of the Miami game, it wasn’t crazy to assume Berry would step up again and hit some timely shots to at least keep Carolina in it. However, he went 0-7 from beyond the arc, finishing with just six points on the night.
Meanwhile, Luke Maye seemed to be getting the shots he wanted, they just weren’t falling. A lot of them weren’t even close, either. Typically, a big man with his shooting abilities can thrive against a zone defense, but things just never really clicked for Maye. He finished 6-15 from the field with 13 points, but it felt like one of those nights where he should have hit nine or ten of those shots.
The Tar Heels aren’t going to win many games with these two combining for less than 20. They need the consistent production they got out of this duo for the majority of the regular season to resurface in the ACC Tournament. The good news here is that each of these guys is no stranger to the big stage, as both were instrumental in last year’s title run. Berry and Maye will need to get back in that March mindset as the Heels begin postseason play.
The defense has been a major area of concern all season long, and this still rings true as we enter the ACC Tournament. Carolina’s recent two-game losing streak (including giving up 91 to Miami on its home court) reignited this worry after a six-game win streak before that had people believing again. However, even during those six games, it wasn’t exactly the defense that made the difference.
The Tar Heels gave up a shooting percentage of 44.8% over those games, up from their season average of 42.8%, which still ranks just 108th in the country. Guarding the perimeter was perhaps the biggest emphasis in order to get back on track, yet Carolina managed to allow all six of those teams make at least seven threes, shooting them at a 37.8% clip.
Fortunately, you can pretty much toss out all the numbers when it gets to March. If you’ve paid attention to Carolina basketball this year, you’ve seen at least one stretch of play where the Tar Heels locked in and played extremely good defense. We know they are capable, and if they can channel that defensive intensity for however many consecutive games, their chances of making runs in both postseason tournaments goes up considerably.
Bench production has been harder to come by in recent weeks, but it’s absolutely essential if the Tar Heels want to win four games in four days and take home the ACC title. This tournament often comes down to which teams run out of steam and which teams can keep pushing through, so balancing playing time and giving starters rest is extremely important.
This team doesn’t have an Isaiah Hicks from 2016 or a Nate Britt from last year to provide a steady veteran presence off the bench. Instead, the first substitution seems to change from game to game, whether it be Brandon Robinson, Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, or someone else. Not one of UNC’s reserves is older than a sophomore.
Conversely, every Carolina starter has had to play at least 28 minutes in each of the last seven games. Considering the pace this team likes to play at, keeping fresh legs on the floor is going to be crucial. The upside is that other teams will be fighting similar battles to keep their players rested throughout this gauntlet of a tournament. However, the Tar Heels are at a slight disadvantage after losing its grasp on the double bye, meaning they’ll begin play on Wednesday as opposed to Thursday.
Carolina is capable of winning this tournament, but they will need solid, consistent play off the bench to do so.