Alright. Everyone recovered? Feeling good? Calmed down from the excitement of the beating UNC gave their red-headed stepchild down the road? Gosh that was fun, wasn’t it?
What did we learn?
Non-conference Scheduling Matters
It’s only the second game of the ACC schedule, and already the Heels have two road wins. One of those, last night’s win against NC State, was against a top-15 squad. It was an electric game full of ups, downs, highs, and lows. It was exactly the kind of contest that UNC’s out-of-conference (OOC) schedule prepared them for.
Acknowledging overlap, UNC played three games on the road (Michigan, Wofford, Elon), against teams currently ranked in the top 20 (Kentucky, Michigan, Gonzaga) and on neutral courts (Kentucky, UCLA, Texas) in preparation for ACC play. In total, that’s seven of UNC’s first 13 opponents that UNC didn’t have to buy. (Eight if you count Stanford). It was 35th toughest non-conference schedule according to Ken Pomeroy at KenPom.com. Kansas and Oklahoma were the only other major conference teams to play a tougher OOC slate.
NC State, on the other hand, entered the game with the 351st most difficult OOC. For reference, there are 353 teams in Division-I. Including a quality win against Auburn, 10 of their first 13 games were at home. The only road game was a loss against Wisconsin. It’s easy to win early season games if you’re willing to pay. (In fact, the Pack only have two true road games in 27 OOC games since Keatts arrived, both due to the mandated ACC/Big Ten challenge. The real Coach K would be proud).
This may be a better version of State than previous years, but they are still State. The lack of their OOC competition was apparent as they never quite rose to the occasion. The Wolfpack never led, couldn’t capitalize when Cam Johnson exited the game with 11:58 remaining, and lost their second game of the season despite recording nine more shots and forcing 23 turnovers. The result? Their 29th defeat at the hands of a Roy Williams-led UNC team.
Seniors Step Up
A recurring theme this season is the weird inconsistency by the triumvirate of Cam Johnson, Luke Maye, and Kenny Williams. They haven’t been “bad”, but they have disappeared during key stretches. That was not the case last night.
Every time the Pack got close, one of them responded. Luke scored inside, outside, and at the line. Cam was 4-7 from three. The Kenny we were all expecting and love finally showed up for his senior swan song. (How big was that three-and-charge sequence with 8:44 remaining?)
All three seniors recorded a double-double. Maye had 21 and 11. Cam tallied 15 and 11 in just 23 minutes of action. Kenny Williams recorded the first of his career with 15 and 10. Combined, the trio were responsible for 51 points and 32 rebounds.
How dominant were they on the glass? NC State had 33 total rebounds as a team.
They did combine for 11 turnovers, but made up for it with 10 assists. The trio also hit a combined 8-17 from three. That’s a cool 47%. Not to mention their 13-15 performance from the line, including going 4-4 in the final minute. Crucial points that provided a cushion at the end.
The best part? Maye, Williams, and Cam (as a Tar Heel) have never left
Marcus Paige Arena PNC Arena as a loser. They are a combined 10-0 there in Carolina Blue.
But remember folks – Kevin Keatts is a winner. Unless it’s against UNC in Raleigh.
After Pitt, I gave kudos to Leaky Black and Brandon Robinson for strong performances off the bench. However, that was against a Pitt program that went winless in the ACC last year. State was clearly a step up in competition. The response from the bench was…interesting.
North Carolina were outscored by NC State’s bench 43-9. They weren’t much better on offense, when they didn’t shoot. Seventh Woods, Black, and Little committed 7 of UNC’s 20 turnovers. The bench as a whole only grabbed three rebounds and had one assist. In what has been a recurring theme, as soon as the majority of the starters took their first rest in the first half, an early 19-4 lead was whittled down to 19-13 in just 2:11 of game action. State hung around the rest of the evening.
Depth was thought to be a strength before the season started. For numerous reasons, that depth hasn’t been reliable from game to game. Little has been uneven. Sterling Manley has missed three straight games with a sore knee. It’s possible he played with the nagging injury through the first two months of the season, which would explain his struggles. Woods has hit a rough patch the past four games after a strong start.
Despite those problems, eight players played 10 or more minutes in Raleigh. Inconsistency was covered up with key stretches or plays. Robinson’s only points came on a huge three-pointer early in the second half to push the lead to 59-55. Little’s lone bucket was part of a 9-0 UNC second-half run that put the game out of reach. During that same offensive outburst, Black joined Little on the court to help keep State scoreless for almost five minutes. Black also broke free for the dunk that essentially salted the game away.
Put it all together, and you have a bench that can be good enough to pick up the slack when necessary. The question is, will they do it on a nightly basis, because relying on 50 and 30 from the three seniors every game is not a viable strategy for ACC competition.