Well that was a fun week off. The league-mandated bye came a little early for the Tar Heels this year, and now it’s time for them to begin the push to the end of the season. It’s the last really long break Carolina gets, so let’s hope they used it for some good practices after the thumping of Virginia Tech.
Tomorrow, Carolina heads to Atlanta to face the not-so-fresh Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech. So what should we be watching for coming out of the break?
Rest or Rust?
Travel back in time with me, if you will. December 31st, 2016 was the last time the Tar Heels went to Atlanta. The future National Champions were coming off a lopsided win against Monmouth, and the Yellow Jackets weren’t expected to be much competition.
Instead, Georgia Tech won 75-63 in a puzzling opener to the ACC season. It wouldn’t be UNC’s only loss of the season, but it was enough to get Josh Pastner ACC Coach of the Year... despite UNC winning the ACC outright.
To say Carolina has been inconsistent this season is putting it mildly. The losses to Texas, Kentucky, and Louisville all came off great wins. Kentucky came after a seven day layoff and Louisville came after a four day break... what I’m saying is that no one should be surprised if after the great win against Virginia Tech, the Heels come out a little flat. As the Jackets showed on the road on Saturday, you better not do that for long. Duke isn’t the unstoppable force that some media arms may have you believe, but they’re still one of the country’s best teams and Georgia Tech led the Blue Devils for a good portion of that game and had a legitimate shot to win before deflating in the game’s last stretch.
They’ve played flat in Atlanta before, they’ve played flat after a good win this season, so the question is: With those circumstances, can this team play above the level of its competition, as it is capable of doing?
Will the three fall?
We all know Roy’s favorite saying at this point: “Things look better when the ball goes in the basket.” Carolina this season has been relying on the three point shot more than usual, mostly due to the lack of size inside and the shooting ability of Cam Johnson, Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, and Coby White. That trend continued against the Hokies as the Heels shot 34 threes, making 16 of them for an astonishing 47%. It was a big reason why they turned a nine point deficit into a 21 point rout.
Georgia Tech doesn’t give up many threes. Opponents are only shooting 26.5% behind the arc against the Jackets, and even in a win, the Blue Devils shot 2/21. Duke isn’t the shooting juggernaut this year that they usually are, but it still bears repeating: Duke shot 2/21 against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets may have some bad losses (hi, Gardner-Webb), but they are keeping scoring down and giving themselves a chance in every game.
UNC has been held below 30% from behind the arc in five games this season: wins against Elon, Harvard, UNCW, and Tennessee Tech, and the loss to Louisville where the Heels were just 3/22. Put another way, the only time the Heels were held below that mark against top-100 competition, they were embarrassed. Against Georgia Tech, Kenpom’s 78th-ranked team, they’ll have to figure out how to score in other ways.
Will Nassir Little Make it Four in a Row?
One of the best developments for Carolina since the embarrassment against Louisville has been the uptick in play from Nassir Little. He’s riding a three game double-digit scoring streak, and each game since Louisville could have arguably been called his best game of the season to that point. The latest stop on this ride was a 23-point effort against the Hokies where his confidence seemed to be on full display.
Not only has his scoring increased, but against Virginia Tech he made several defensive plays that showed things are coming together for him. Georgia Tech appears to be a good set up for him to continue the ascension he’s shown, being another team that is shorthanded compared to UNC and thus liable to not be able to keep up with his speed and athleticism.
Up until recently, there had been a noticeable drop off in play when the starters come out of the game and Roy Williams starts using his bench. Little’s improved play has erased that drop-off for the most part recently. For the Tar Heels to have any sort of successful season, they need the spark off the bench Little has provided the last three games, and a test against one of the country’s better defensive teams could show us exactly what he can bring the Heels when the competition really heats up.