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UNC Basketball: The Tar Heels winning ugly now may pay dividends in March

Is this team able to turn some of their biggest negatives into a positive come tournament time?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at N.C. State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-19 version of the North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team is one of the most interesting teams we’ve seen in quite a while. No, wait, there’s a better way to put that: this year’s team may be one of the most confusing teams in recent memory.

Tuesday night’s 90-82 win against NC State is a perfect example — the Heels had 20 assists, but turned the ball over 23 times to finish the game with a negative assist-turnover ratio. The Wolfpack, however, had 17 assists and 13 turnovers. Without telling someone the box score, we should know who won that game, right?

Does that example not work? Let’s try this one: UNC finished a game this year with 18 assists and 23 turnovers, while the opposing team finished with 17 and 14. Alarmingly similar, right? The game was against Gonzaga, and the Heels won by 13.

The turnover issue that Carolina is dealing with right now has been talked about quite a bit since the issue became rather noticeable against St. Francis. They finished that game with 18 turnovers, and continued the trend against Texas by giving the ball away 17 times. It’s an issue that has stuck around all season, despite Roy Williams’ many many pleas for corrections. However, it seems like winning ugly games has become a weird comfort zone for this year’s team. Truth be told, it might just be a comfort zone that might get them further than some may expect come March.

To be clear, there are other factors that are tempting fate when it comes to the Heels, but for now let’s talk turnovers. According to NCAA.com, UNC is currently tied for 250th in turnovers per game committed, having committed 14.5 turnovers per game (though if you look at their site, UNC is tied with a lot more teams than the ranking reflects, but I digress). The causes of these issues are hard to pin on one or two people, but there is definitely more of a trend in that department with the point guard position.

Coby White is currently averaging 2.9 turnovers per game, which is considerably higher when compared to Seventh Woods who has turned it over an average of 1.8 times per game. Total-wise, White leads the team with 40, with the next highest amount coming from Luke Maye at 27, and Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams tying for third place with 26.

To put these numbers into perspective, the Virginia Cavaliers unsurprisingly lead the nation in fewest turnovers allowed. As of yesterday afternoon, the player on their team that commits the most turnovers is Ty Jerome, who has had 20 so far this season. Kyle Guy comes in at second with 18, and Kihei Clark is third with 14. Quite the difference, right? It’s always an extreme comparison when looking at the team leading the country in a stat, but in this case, it paints quite the picture.

With all of that said, pointing out this alarming stat isn’t meant to chastise the players mentioned. What this stat actually tells us is that UNC has somehow found a way to win all but three games so far this year while turning the ball over left and right. A lot of that has to do with scoring, as the Heels are currently averaging 89.9 points per game. Considering such a high amount of production, one can only imagine what will happen when Carolina is able to minimize the turnovers. That is a lot of points that they have left on the table due to miscues, and if they can get back to what they did against their early November opponents, all of a sudden Roy’s squad can make their strongest case yet as one of the most dangerous offenses in the country.

Believe it or not, this isn’t the only way that UNC has been able to win ugly. Sophomore forward Garrison Brooks has gotten himself into a lot of foul trouble these days, and in the case of the game against State, it was almost enough to cause the Heels to completely lose what was a good-size lead in the first half. After picking up two fouls in less than a minute, UNC’s 29-17 lead shrank to a 29-25 lead in 43 seconds. Forty. Three. Seconds. The Wolfpack would get things within two points before the Heels were able to extend their lead to close the half, but Brooks’ assignment DJ Funderburk was able to do a lot of damage in the paint when it was all said and done.

What happened in the first half in PNC Arena pretty much sums up just how important it is this year for Garrison Brooks to be on the court. When he’s not on the floor, teams start to attack the Heels in the paint and things get ugly real fast. While it is worth noting that Sterling Manley has been injured and his return date is still in question, a Brooks-less solution to not having such a huge drop-off in defense when he’s not on the court is essential to the Heels getting where they want to go this year. Much like the turnover issue, the Heels have proven they can win when this happens, but Brooks getting the issue under control and/or his teammates stepping up when he’s on the bench could go a long way moving forward in conference play.

Now, let’s talk about two things that happened against NC State that hopefully will not surface again for the rest of this season. Cameron Johnson had started to find a groove against the Pack in the second half, and then went down for the rest of the game after experiencing cramps. It was a scary moment for Tar Heels fans, as Johnson’s body has not been kind to him during his basketball career, and the fear was that he was done for the season once he reached for his knee. Without their best scorer, the Heels managed to hold off the Wolfpack largely thanks to some good minutes from Leaky Black and Brandon Robinson.

Finally, there is Seventh Woods. Woods, to put it bluntly, struggled greatly Tuesday night. Aside from a block and a steal, Woods’ productive stat line was basically non-existent for the night, though he did commit three turnovers and two fouls. Stats aside, Woods all and all looked like he was completely lost against State’s pressure defense, which is significant considering that Coby White was a freshman going into the most hostile environment so far this year and played pretty well against it (turnovers aside). Hopefully Woods gets his issues figured out soon, and if so, it will help the Heels out greatly.

To sum things up: the Tar Heels have been very proficient this year in winning ugly. The type of ugly has been a wide range of things at times, and at other times have been as simple as too many turnovers. These ugly wins do indeed pay off in the long run, even if they’re not fun. Just look at the 2017 national championship team - they almost lost to Arkansas in the round of 32, beat Kentucky thanks to a Luke Maye buzzer-beater, beat Oregon by one point in the Final Four, and won one of the least asthetically-pleasing national championship games against in recent memory against Gonzaga. Ugly wins championships sometimes, and it’s a road that Roy Williams is very familiar with.

Am I saying this year is a national championship year? Absolutely not, and if I’m being very honest, I have no idea what is going to happen come March. I do, however, think that at this point the Tar Heels deserve to be in any conversation about the Final Four as much as any other team in the country. They have played a very tough schedule, they have won some ugly games, and things are starting to click a bit more each game on the defensive side of the ball. They have enough weapons to get to Minneapolis, but they have enough holes to not make it out of the first weekend. This team is weird, this team is unpredictable, and this team can be downright frustrating, but man have they been fun to watch.