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UNC Basketball: Pleasant surprises at the halfway mark

Let’s highlight one senior, one junior, and one sophomore doing winning things.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Miami vs North Carolina Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina has played one-third of the ACC regular season schedule and roughly half of what will constitute the overall 2018-19 slate. On Monday night, the No. 11 Heels (15-4, 5-1 ACC) continued to bounce back from their lone conference loss with a third straight win, overcoming a slow start for a convincing 103-82 home victory over No. 10 Virginia Tech. UNC next plays at Georgia Tech on Tuesday night at 7pm EST.

The Heels have had some success, some issues, and have a whole lot left still to figure out. With that said, let’s look at five pleasant surprises from the first half of the season:

Cam Johnson balling out

It’s not a newsflash that Johnson is a good basketball player. Pretty much everyone knew, health permitting, that he was in store for a big senior season. But I imagined each player’s most improbable statistical ceiling prior to the season, and Johnson is darn-near matching or exceeding those lofty projections (which for some Heels were really optimistic).

The fifth-year grad student is averaging a team-high 15.5 points per game and adding 5.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.3 steals. Johnson is shooting 50.0% from the field and has drilled 46 of his 99 shot attempts (45.6%) from beyond the arc, which is 10% higher than his 2017-18 clip. He has scored in double-digits in all but two contests, which includes the latest win over the Hokies. He has been in a “slump” for three out of the last four games in which he shot a combined 2-of-13 from 3 (in the other game, he hit 5-of-7).

Johnson understands the offense and plays within himself, but admirably is willing to take advantage of his greenest of green lights. He has shown that what may seem like ball-stopping three-point chucks are actually some of Carolina’s best sources of game-changing or game-saving plays. UNC fans have been treated to several no-hesitation, high-volume, deep-range shooters in recent years, thanks to Marcus Paige, Joel Berry, and Cam Johnson.

About the only area in which Johnson has slightly dipped is at the free-throw line – from 84.7% last year to 78.6% now – but I have faith he will nudge his rate back up (see below).

Garrison Brooks’ early offense and constant defense

Brooks has been the next-closest player to reaching my rose-colored projections from September. The sophomore big man is averaging 8.4 points on 54.3% shooting and 5.7 rebounds in 20.7 minutes per game. He has been an energetic anchor in the middle on both ends of the floor, with coaching assessments and advanced metrics pinning Brooks as Carolina’s most influential defender. At times after making an and-one, Brooks gets so pumped up you wonder if he might accidentally strike an opponent.

While Brooks received positive reviews for his defense as a freshman, his offensive progress this year has been welcome and suggests further room for growth. Due to the ongoing injury absence of fellow sophomore forward Sterling Manley, Brooks has been carrying extra weight down low for the Heels. He has hit double-figures in scoring only six times and in rebounding zero (seven-plus 10 times), but most unexpectedly, he has served an invaluable role in sparking the UNC offense to start halves.

On the season, Brooks has scored 70 of his 160 (43.8%) total points within the first four minutes of each half (20% of total game time) for an average of 3.7 points per game in the opening stanzas combined. Now, as a relatively low-minutes starter, Brooks’ percentage of playing time in the early going is probably within shouting distance of his scoring figure, but it is reasonable to believe that this production is not a coincidence.

In 12 of UNC’s 38 (31.6%) halves so far, Brooks was the first Carolina player to score, which equals the number of times he has been shut out in the first four minutes of a half. In other words, Brooks has gotten on the board within the first four minutes of a half over two-thirds of the time. Not bad for a player whose offense is largely regarded as an afterthought.

Don’t tell this to opponents, but it seems like the first play coming out of the locker room is always drawn up for Brooks, especially recently. It might be fair to question why he doesn’t keep it up all game, but it sort of fits with his role as team igniter before allowing more well-rounded scorers to go to work. Part of it is also because Brooks is a frequent victim of Isaiah Hicks syndrome, also known as foul trouble.

Brooks hasn’t found a way to maintain his strong defense without picking up fouls and having to sit on the pine for extended stretches, when Carolina’s defense as a whole typically declines. That has been his main flaw, along with missing a few too many gimme layups and even dunks, and taking a few too many mid-range jumpers. Brooks isn’t a player the Heels can routinely throw the ball to in the post for easy buckets just yet, but his progress report reads well.

Brandon Robinson’s contributions

It looks like B-Rob is still skipping leg day (and maybe every day) in the weight room, but he has contributed in several ways off the bench this year. His stats certainly do not jump off the page – 3.4 points, 1.2 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in 11.0 minutes per game – but his scoring and assist averages have doubled from last season.

Robinson has connected on 11-of-23 (47.8%) three-pointers, including several timely ones that might have helped determine the outcomes of games. Against Notre Dame on Jan. 25, B-Rob splashed three long balls while the rest of the team was sleepwalking through the first half, allowing the Heels to keep close before pulling out a hard-fought 75-69 win to rebound from the home loss to Louisville. In the next outing at Miami, Robinson dished out four assists in a 85-76 victory.

That versatility is exactly what the Heels need from the second unit. Robinson has already scored one more point than he did all of last season and has recorded 21 assists to only eight turnovers without a multiple-TO game. The junior guard has also chipped in nine steals and three blocks. More importantly than the modest numbers, Robinson provides a spark off the bench and always seems to be around the ball, tipping and deflecting it in a beneficial direction or grabbing it himself.

Robinson’s steady play has helped slightly offset the shooting slump from starting shooting guard Kenny Williams, who has been trending up himself recently. B-Rob has been about as useful as a player who has scored in double-figures only once can be. UNC needs whatever else more the 6’4, 170-pounder can offer because the bench has been very hit-or-miss in 2018-19.

Free-throw shooting

Knock on wood right now, please. To this point, Carolina has been quite good from the charity stripe, making 311-of-417 (74.6%) shots to rank 46th (of 351) in the country and fourth (of 15) in the ACC. The percentage is almost identical to last season’s, but with the graduation of clutch 80-something-percent shooters Berry and Theo Pinson, it was hard to know how the Heels would do on their freebies this year.

The results are encouraging. Luke Maye has continued his career ascent, rising from 42.9% as a freshman, to 57.9% as a sophomore, to 62.4% as a junior, before leaping to 77.0% now as a senior. This is wonderful and necessary, as Maye has attempted six more shots from the line than any other UNC player (Coby White: 68 FTA, 80.9%).

The main thing that isn’t ideal in this department is that Carolina might be a team with several pretty good free-throw shooters but no great ones. That can present problems in end-of-season, end-of-game scenarios when the team lacks a Berry or Pinson or Paige to find in key moments when the defense is sure to bring pressure and fouls. Perhaps one player will emerge over the second half of the year (my money is on Johnson).

Responding after losses

This sort of begs the Chris Rock routine — “What do you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to lose consecutive games!” True, but the Heels have done a solid job of bouncing back from losses in 2018-19. The irony is that while teams won’t need to avoid two losses in a row when it really matters come March (since one L sends them home), the ability to do so in the regular season is usually a good indicator of teams that make deep postseason runs.

The Heels have won all four games coming off a loss by an average of nearly 18 points. Some of that is competition-related, as Carolina blew out UNC-Wilmington by 27 points following a bad defeat at Michigan, and beat Davidson by 22 after a frustrating loss to Kentucky, both at home. But that mark also includes a 16-point win over UCLA the day after a loss to Texas and the recent six-point slugfest triumph over Notre Dame after falling to Louisville.

UNC hopes to not have many more opportunities to improve this record. Still, it is nice to know the Heels are mentally strong enough to shake off poor outings and respond with A-level play. Sometimes C-level play will have to suffice, and Carolina appears capable of that too as shown in the win over the Irish.