With just a 4-6 record in their last 10 games against Miami, and having dropped 2 of the last 3 in Corral Gables, Saturday afternoon could have been disastrous. Another noon game, on the road, against an opponent that has given North Carolina trouble over the past five years? Count me among the concerned.
It was touch and go at moments, but the Heels ultimately walked away with their third road victory in ACC play. Standing at 4-1 in the ACC, there is now a six-team logjam atop the ACC standings. Here are three quick lessons from the game.
Seniors Step Up
On Tuesday night, the bench stepped up in a big way to carry the Heels over Notre Dame. At Miami, the seniors made sure that wasn’t necessary. The three senior starters combined for 52 points, 20 rebounds, and 13 assists. Kenny and Cam were a combined 8-12 from deep. Luke managed a quiet 14 and 9 despite sitting for over five minutes late in the second half with four fouls.
It was during that stint that Cam and Kenny did things that seniors are expected to do. The duo hit four consecutive three-pointers over five possessions. Check it out:
6:32: UNC leads 63-62. Cam Johnson hits a three. UNC leads 66-62
5:54: UNC leads 66-65. Cam Johnson hits a three. UNC leads 69-65
5:15: UNC leads 69-67. Kenny Williams hits a three. UNC leads 72-67
4:29: UNC leads 72-67. Coby White misses desperation three as shot clock winds down.
3:53: UNC leads 72-67. Kenny Williams hits a three. UNC leads 77-69.
After that outburst, Miami never got closer than six points. In just 2 minutes and 39 seconds of live game action, Cam and Kenny buried the Hurricanes. Game. Set. Match.
It was just further proof that, despite the fanfare of Nassir Little and Coby White, this team will only go as far as their seniors take them.
Point Guard Play
Going into yesterday, Coby White was averaging 14.2 points, 3.6 assists, and 2.9 rebounds per game. He had only exceeded all those averages in a single game once, against UCLA. Additionally, he had only exceeded both his scoring and assist average in the same game, just three times – UCLA, North Carolina State, and Gonzaga. North Carolina went 3-0 in those games.
Why is this important? That number moved to 4-0 after White went for 15 points, 5 rebounds, and 8 assists against Miami.
Averages are fluid through the season so a line has to be drawn somewhere. For fun, let’s just say it appears the sweet spot for UNC is when Coby can drop 15 points and 4 assists in the same game. North Carolina is better when Coby is the consistent third or fourth scoring option. That’s an even balance between using his natural scoring ability and running the offense.
His ability to do so will be even more important if the Heels cannot figure out their backup point guard situation. Seventh Woods continues to struggle after a great stretch to start the year. He didn’t even play in the second half when Coach Williams called on Leaky Black to run the team. That switch resulted in a five point lead being cut to two, before Coby came back in to finish the game. I acknowledge +/- is a tricky stat, but Black and Woods were a combined -7 in 11 minutes of action, with 0 points, 0 assists, 2 rebounds, and 2 turnovers.
Someone needs to ask if Stilman White has any eligibility left.
Sharing is Caring
North Carolina made 33 field goals on 26 assists. It was the second most assists in a game this season, and the highest assists rate (78.7%) on the season. That’s an improvement over 15 assists on 27 field goals (55.5% assist rate) against Notre Dame. For the afternoon, they averaged 1.25 points per possession, easily their best performance in conference play.
Throughout the game, the Heels whipped the ball inside, outside, and around the perimeter. Due to the lack of natural shot creators and playmakers on this specific roster, ball movement and player movement off the ball are critical. There’s an argument that those two facets of the game are more important than any other year during Williams’ tenure. Previous teams have had the athletes to make up for poor decisions, poor shots, or poor effort. This team does not and it has been on display in their losses.
Does it help when the ball goes through the net? Yes. Of course. However, there is often a reason that shots drop more frequently when the ball and players are active and moving. Driving and passing lanes open up. Players catch the ball in rhythm and ready to shoot. Defenders are more likely to lose their man or get tired more quickly from chasing their opponent around the court for 15 seconds compared to standing or walking within a 5-foot radius.
There’s a difference in Nassir Little hovering around the perimeter instead of cutting down the lane for a monstrous dunk as the trail man. Just as there is a difference in Kenny Williams curling or flaring off a screen instead of standing straight up and down on the wing, waiting for someone to see him. You get the point.
Ball movement and assists are always a staple of UNC’s teams. This year, though, it will be the difference in a first weekend exit or a deep March run.