Most of y’all probably didn’t pay money to watch last night’s game at UNC-Wilmington. Lucky for you, I am a sucker and paid $12.50 for two hours of a subpar audio and visual experience. UNC eventually pulled away for the win, which is what usually happens when you’re the more talented team. Other than the obvious outcome, here are three more things we learned in this young season,
A concern that was lost in Cole Anthony’s explosion against Notre Dame was the relative lack of production in the paint. Against the Irish, Armando Bacot and Garrison Brooks only attempted a combined 14 field goals and UNC finished with just 22 points in the paint. For a team hoping to return to a two-post offense, that’s simply not going to be enough.
It wasn’t much better against a less talented UNC-Wilmington squad. North Carolina was outscored 34-30 inside the paint. Garrison Brooks accounted for just 10 of those points. (He was also 8-10 from the foul line). The other 20 points came from an array of lay-ups, pull-ups, and transition buckets in a team effort that was often uneven. The Heels finished 15-for-26 inside the paint, while the Seahawks were slightly better at 17-28 (thanks partly to incessant pick-and-rolls on the depleted UNC lineup). That’s not the kind of inside dominance many fans had hoped would return.
Yes, Bacot was called for two quick fouls before eventually leaving halfway through the first half after sustaining a blow to the head. He was on the court for approximately 1 minute and 41 seconds. Stuff happens. That doesn’t completely excuse allowing that many points or missing so many lay-ups and pull-ups within six feet.
A tale of two transfers
Two of the biggest questions heading into the season revolved around graduate transfers Justin Pierce and Christian Keeling and their adjustments to the new level of competition. Pierce temporarily silenced any skeptics last night after a strong 18 and 12 performance. Sure, it was against a lower caliber opponent than Notre Dame, and yes, William & Mary (Pierce’s former team) is in the CAA and plays UNCW twice a year. That’s largely irrelevant. It was UNC’s first ever trip to UNCW, and it was Pierce who set the tone.
The important takeaway from Pierce’s outburst was how he produced. Playing most of his minutes at the four after Bacot did not return, Pierce proved his versatility on the inside and outside. Going 4-7 from deep helps soothe any uneasiness some may have had over a lackluster shooting percentage last year, but he had no issue hitting the glass or finding lanes into the paint. He finished 3-5 inside the arc as well.
Meanwhile, Christian Keeling struggled again. He finished with 4 points on 2-9 shooting in 23 minutes. His final collegiate season is probably not off to the start he hoped for. Some fans are going to overreact and start questioning if he can handle the pressure at this level. If you are one of those folks, just take a step back and relax.
Keeling has been a ball-dominant scorer his entire career. He now must play off the ball, learn a new system, and take a step up in competition. (Pierce, by contrast, is still playing a similar role as a stretch-4 or perimeter threat). It’s going to take him a few games to figure out what he can and cannot do as he learns the wing’s role in the UNC offense. That’s going to lead to some rushed shots, head-scratching passes, and attacking into the teeth of the defense. But scorers don’t forget how to score. Shooters shoot. Keeling will be fine.
Pushing the Pace. Kind of.
UNC played a tick faster than they did against Notre Dame, finishing with 78 possessions in Wilmington. But finding efficiency in their fast break and their possessions will continue to be a struggle. After only scoring 12 fast break points on Wednesday, they could only muster 11 fast break points on Friday. Those points have come despite grabbing 75 defensive rebounds in the two games. Those rebounds are usually prime opportunities for the Heels to push the ball down an opponent’s throat, and help UNC’s offense maintain a top-10 offense in most efficiency metrics.
So far, that hasn’t happened. Last night, they only managed 1.01 points per possession. That’s suboptimal by almost any program’s standards. UNC scored 1.01 PPP or worse in seven games last year. They finished 2-5 in those contests. They were 2-2 in games they scored exactly 1.01 PPP. (Shoutout to DadgumBoxScores.com).
Nobody seriously expects this team to be as fast as last year’s Coby White-led, senior-laden roster. That doesn’t mean a North Carolina team is suddenly going to stop running. It’s going to take some trial and error for all the new players to figure out how to run the fast break, hit their spots, and know where their teammates should be for easy buckets. (See above: Christian Keeling). That should help those fast break numbers and overall efficiency.
For reference, UNC currently has an average possession length of 17.2 seconds (according to KenPom.com). Last season, they finished with an average of 14.6 seconds per possession. UNC has never finished a season slower than 16.0 seconds per possession since Ken Pomeroy began keeping that metric in 2010. It will be fun to watch this offense evolve in the coming months, but expect serious growing pains along the way.