Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our Monday morning opportunity to review last week’s games, second guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.
The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.
The end of non-conference play brought an impressive home win against a good but undermanned Harvard team. The defensive intensity carried itself on the road for the team's first conference game of the year. All in all, it was a great start to 2019.
Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .
First, it has been a very long time since this team played twice in the same week. In fact, the back to back games against Texas and UCLA during Thanksgiving were the last time the team had a calendar week with multiple games (they also played St. Francis on Monday of that week). On one hand, such a schedule leads to plenty of rest and practice time. On the other, not having frequent live-game competition can disrupt continuity and rhythm. The game against Pitt looked like one where there is starting to be some consistency, especially on the defensive side.
The challenge for Coach Williams will be maintaining that level of intensity and keeping the past few games in perspective. The Heels gave up only 60 points to Davidson, while holding the Wildcats under 30% from the field and only 26% from three. Davidson, however, was without leading scorer Kellan Grady.
Wednesday brought another good defensive effort against Harvard. The second half was especially successful, including an eight-minute second half stretch only yielding one point. The Heels also forced 22 Crimson turnovers. Harvard is a good team but has been without Seth Towns this year and is clearly not at full speed.
The Heels opened ACC play on Saturday at Pitt. The Panthers were fired up through the first 8 minutes and so were the fans. With 12:14 remaining in the half, it was a defensive play that shut down the Panther momentum and sparked the Heels. Nassir Little’s block on the fast break layup attempt that sailed multiple rows into the stands (and likely wasn’t great for Brandon Robinson’s head), was the catalyst. The score was 15-12 at that point and ended up 45-23 at the half.
As I wrote last week, the Pitt record should be taken with a grain of salt considering their atrocious non-conference strength of schedule. Winning in conference on the road, however, is never easy. Kansas, Nevada, and Kentucky all lost to unranked opponents on the road Saturday. This Carolina team looked very impressive.
A Word of Wisdom from MGD . . .
A bit of a health scare this week has kept My Grumpy Dad from providing much of his always interesting insight. A couple of blow-out wins were nice to keep the stress level down and we are all cheering for a quick recovery.
I will do the best I can here to fill in for his pessimistic passion. The starters have looked pretty good over the last couple of weeks but the bench continues to evolve. At the beginning of the year, I really believed that this year’s version of the Heels would win games through its deep and talented bench. That may still be the case, but it is a fluid process.
With Sterling Manley still hampered by a knee injury, the rotation shifted more to small ball. The surprise from the box score is that Seventh Woods was ninth in minutes for the game. Little (18 minutes), Leaky Black (16 minutes), and Robinson (15 minutes) were the biggest contributors from the bench. The caveat here is that with Kenny Williams’ foul trouble, the bench minutes could have been skewed. All of the other starters were in the 26-30 minute range and that trend will likely continue.
I will also be keeping an eye on the Black vs. Robinson playing time. They have alternated with each other being first off the bench and have contributed on the floor in different ways. They will both need to continue to be positive influences for this team to reach its potential.
Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.
This week will be more challenging and should provide a better measuring stick for the remainder of the season. On Tuesday, the Heels travel to Raleigh to take on a surprisingly good NC State team. That will be another raucous environment and a true road test. It will also be a track meet. Both teams are averaging over 89 points per game and both shoot at a very high percentage. First to 100 will win.
Saturday will be the conference home opener and will also be against an upstart team in Louisville (this is clearly going to be a theme this year in the ACC). Again, we will know quite a bit more about this team in seven days.
This was a good week and provides plenty of reason for optimism. The schedule gets more difficult but the team is trending in the right direction.