North Carolina escaped the Oregon Ducks in the third place game of the Battle 4 Atlantis. They finished the trip to Paradise Island with a 2-1 record, salvaging the Thanksgiving trip after being demolished by the eventual tournament champion Michigan Wolverines. (Shout-out to Juwan Howard for finally winning a title in a collegiate tournament).
It was a hectic three days that kept UNC fans teetering from despondent to euphoric, and every emotion in between. With no known timetable for Sterling Manley, Jeremiah Francis, and Anthony Harris’ return, and Leaky Black and Brandon Robinson both hobbled with ankle/foot ailments, perhaps none of that should have been surprising. Considering North Carolina only has eight truly healthy scholarship players at the moment, this week may have been a preview of the next 90 days.
Sitting at an overall 6-1 record, and with Ohio State and Virginia looming in the next seven days, the trip was certainly a learning experience. Boiling it down to juse three things learned was difficult. Turnovers, lack of assists, shooting woes, weird lineups, injuries, the lack of a back-up point guard, and offensive struggles were all points of emphasis through the week. Here are three lessons our staff eventually settled on from the event. As is my preference, I’ll try to ignore obvious observations like “Brandon Robinson’s return was important,” and “UNC can’t guard the pick-n-roll”.
Balance is Best
Cole Anthony is among the most talented players in the country. Nobody will argue that. North Carolina, however, is at their best when Cole Anthony is not the main attraction. He was not the leading scorer in the wins against Alabama and Oregon, ceding that nightly award to Garrison Brooks (20 points vs Bama) and Armando Bacot (23 points vs Oregon).
Against Alabama, the Heels had four players — Anthony, Brooks, Bacot, and Brandon Robinson — in double-figures. It was the first (and only) time that’s happened this season. Against Oregon, Anthony, Bacot, and Robinson again had double figures, while Brooks was one point shy of joining them. A major question heading into the tournament was whether or not the Heels could find a consistent second scorer. That question still doesn’t have an answer, but if balanced production continues, the Heels may have just enough offense to battle for the ACC.
Cole, meanwhile, “only” averaged 14.3 field goal attempts and 18 points per game. His efficiency will be a season long work in progress, but that’s noticeably less than the first four games where he averaged 19.75 FGA. It was a big reason UNC’s offense looked marginally better over the course of the week.
There will be nights when Anthony absolutely will have to shoot 20+ times. There will be nights that he carries the team to victory on the back of otherworldly shots, like he did against Notre Dame. However, this tournament proved that most nights those kinds of shooting sprees should not be necessary. Especially as Bacot grows into his role and Brandon Robinson returns to full health.
Attack the Rim
North Carolina is not a deep team, but that isn't going to stop Roy from trying to force his 2-post offense into submissive success. This style of play requires even more production from the big men when a team does not have an athletic, shot creating, playmaker at any of the wing positions. For those who have missed the first seven games, this UNC team does not have one of those players at the shooting guard or small forward position. It’s a major reason the Heels have yet to break 80 points in a game and are playing at their slowest pace in five years.
Truthfully, UNC’s best bet at success this season — or, at the very least, in December — is to force the ball inside and rack up second chance points by crashing the glass from all positions. That wasn’t always the case in the past three seasons, when they had multiple shooting threats around the perimeter, but it’s undeniable this year.
This week, Brooks averaged 14 ppg and Bacot was close behind with 13.6. As a team, in their two wins, the Heels racked up 42 offensive rebounds, 45 second chance points, and 75 points in the paint. In the loss to Michigan, they only mustered 11-13-22 in those metrics.
That kind of aggressiveness and focus led to 62 free throw attempts. A 20-for-21 shooting display against Oregon salvaged the week with a very nice 69% success rate over the three games. For the season, though, UNC is only hitting 65% from the charity stripe. If they can maintain an attacking mindset, continue to dominate the paint, and raise that FT% to a more historical norm above 70%, the lack of consistent playmaking and outside shooting can be mitigated.
Graduate Transfer Struggles
I, for one, believe Justin Pierce and Christian Keeling are going to be vital pieces of the UNC puzzle by the time the calendar turns to February. This week, however, they both validated many fan’s concerns about performing against top competition. Both came to UNC from lower-level conferences and, so far, the nightly competition against high-major teams has proven to be a learning experience. Check out these splits.
First four games (Notre Dame, UNCW, Gardner Webb, Elon)
Pierce: 24.3 mpg, 9.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 42.9 FG%, 35.7 3P%
Keeling: 24.8 mpg, 6.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 38.7 FG%, 21.4 3P%
Battle 4 Atlantis (Alabama, Michigan, Oregon)
Pierce: 16.3 mpg, 4.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 26.6 FG%, 12.5 3P%
Keeling: 17.3 mpg, 4.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 22.7 FG%, 20.0 3P%
The decrease in minutes can partially be explained by Brandon Robinson’s return to the lineup. That moved Keeling to the bench, where he continued his uneven play. Pierce’s decrease was a little more surprising considering he plays both forward positions, giving him more versatility in the lineup. Both players found themselves in Roy Williams’ doghouse through the week, with Pierce only playing six minutes in the second half — and that was after it was known that Leaky Black wasn't returning to the game.
Growing pains were expected, and Roy coaches in November to prepare for March. My trusty eye test tells me both players are much better players than what they’ve shown, but the numbers are cause for concern. Regardless, both players have to be more productive if UNC is going to compete for an ACC title and make a deep run in March.