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Tar Heel Hangover: Developing a winning chemistry

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With February just around the corner, is this team finally getting into a groove?

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our Monday morning opportunity to review last week’s game, second guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

Two freshmen combined for 50 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists and 5 steals against a top ten foe. Perhaps that effort was not enough to warrant a five day headline (yep, I’m still not over that - see issue 7), but it was plenty for a rout of the Hokies. The Heels are now tied in the loss column for the conference lead and will likely return to the top 10 in national rankings. Plus, they got some rest after a short turnaround. It was a great week.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

After starting the game against the Hokies 1 of 12 from three-point land, the Heels put on a shooting display to end 16 of 34. That impressive 15 of 22 streak resulted in a blow out win after being down 9 early. Shooting over 20 threes in the first half and 34 for the game, however, is not sustainable long term. Over half of the team’s field goal attempts were beyond the arc. Even as the Virginia Tech big men got in foul trouble in the first half, the Tar Heel offense started and ended from deep. Fortunately, they made 7 of their next 9 threes after the abysmal start and went into the locker room up 45-31, hadn’t gone through to spark momentum on the offensive end while the team locked Virginia Tech down on defense, it could have spelled disaster.

The danger was evident in the first 10 minutes of the game. Poor shooting and few easy interior baskets led to an early deficit before great shooting erased it. Now, there is no doubt that a team shooting 70% from three (as the Heels did for about the final 30 minutes) is going to win a lot of games. The trouble is that in March, it only takes that 10-minute stretch to extend to 20 or 30 minutes to find your team facing an early exit.

The good news is that the attempts were well-distributed with 8 different players trying at least one three-pointer. Coby White starred, finishing with an impressive 27 points on 5-11 from deep. His 16 total field goal attempts were as many as Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye took combined, but White did plenty more than just shoot. His 6 assists were also a team high, and that shows the kind of balance between scoring and facilitating that a championship team needs.

It may seem obvious, but this team is best when Luke Maye is at his best. Against Virginia Tech, Maye only took three shots inside the arc and only came down with 5 rebounds. Recently, Maye has not seemed comfortable in the post or in the midrange, where he was so good last year and the reason he was so difficult to defend. Especially as his three-point shooting has regressed (though he has still been good, and was a stellar 4-5 against Tech), Maye has got to do a better job of finding space, creating angles, and finishing his opportunities like he did in his All-ACC 2018 season.

Finally, credit should go to Coach Williams for executing a successful strategy for Nassir Little over the last three weeks, and to Little for persevering to seize the opportunity. At the beginning of the month, I asked, “When is the real Nassir Little going to show up?” At the time, Little was mired in poor shooting performances and very limited involvement generally in the offense. His game was primarily devolving into impromptu isolation plays that had limited success and often resulted in turnovers. Two weeks ago, his game was steadily improving with 23 total points in two games on 11-16 shooting. But last week’s performance may have been the real breakout all Carolina fans were hoping for. Little finished with 23 points on 7-12 shooting (including 2-3 from three) and added 6 rebounds. His aggressiveness in the paint earned him 7 of the team’s 17 free throw attempts and he converted on them all. His jaw-dropping dunk off of the pass from Maye on the break was the crowd explosion moment of the game.

A Word of Wisdom from My Grumpy Dad . . .

“I hope the rest has encouraged them to play defense for 20 minutes a game.” Do you mean 20 minutes a half? “No, 20 minutes a game would be an improvement.”

At times, the team seems to have the ability to play lockdown defense. Virginia Tech scored 9 points in the final 12:27 of the first half during the game-defining run. What is frustrating was the first 7:33 of the half where the Hokies put up 22 and held a lead in the Dean Dome. The week off hopefully gives the team a chance to reflect on the defensive chemistry that developed during the comeback Monday night and find a way to channel it for the rest of the year.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

A couple of difficult road games await the team this week. First up is Georgia Tech, who provided a very tough test for Duke on Saturday but ultimately came up short. Plus, for reasons only known to the basketball gods, the Heels never seem to play well in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets score less than 70 points per game but only give up 63.6 per contest. Consistent scoring will put pressure on the Georgia Tech offense and should be the key to the win.

Saturday then brings a rematch of the embarrassing Louisville home loss. In many ways, this game may define the season. Carolina has improved significantly over the last few weeks. They are shooting better and defending better. I fully expect a very different and energized Tar Heel team to be on the court Saturday.

Final Thoughts

This is a Tar Heel team on the rise. Monday was a terrific win and it is time for this team to rise to a championship level of consistent and outstanding play.