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UNC vs. UCLA: Three Things to Watch

The Tar Heels could really use a win.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The North Carolina Tar Heels have now lost four straight and five of their last six after a 94-81 defeat at the hands of Gonzaga. Sitting at 6-5 and without its best player in Cole Anthony, this team is in desperate need of a win to boost its confidence as we move closer to the true start of conference play. Here are three things to watch when the Heels take on UCLA this Saturday in Las Vegas.

Jeremiah Francis

Francis was arguably the most encouraging aspect of Carolina’s loss to Gonzaga on Wednesday. The dude has been out of basketball for two years, but he stepped in and ran the offense really as well as we’ve seen it run all season. Francis also made a few impressive isolation plays and looked surprisingly quick and nimble. He notched 11 points and three assists for the game while shooting 2-3 from beyond the arc.

K.J. Smith has been solid in the minutes he’s received since Anthony went down with a knee injury but I think it’s only a matter of time before Francis usurps his position in the starting lineup. In the past few games, this team has been at its best with Francis is in the game. He’s played low-error basketball (two turnovers since his debut at Virginia) and he’s provided a scoring punch that most were not expecting this early in his career.

If Francis can continue to knock down shots and manage the offense as he’s done, it could allow the Tar Heels to at least stay alive for this next month or so until Anthony returns. Moreover, the idea of a Francis-Anthony backcourt does not sound so bad.

Transition Offense

There’s a long list of things to be frustrated about with this team but perhaps none is as disheartening as the Heels’ inability to score in transition. The defensive woes, specifically the perimeter defense, certainly need to be addressed but that isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. And despite all the struggles elsewhere, Carolina is still top ten in total rebound percentage. Transition offense, however, is a major staple of Roy Williams’ Tar Heel teams that this squad just cannot seem to execute.

Carolina actually had some opportunities to get out in transition against Gonzaga, a team that typically likes to play fast. Throw in the fact that they recorded eleven steals and this one had all the makings of a vintage “run the opponent out of the gym” game for the Heels. But this is no vintage Carolina team.

Due to a combined lack of experience, athleticism, and cohesion, this team cannot seem to finish at the rim on the break. Francis finally picked up on that and started settling for mid-range jumpers, which are fine if they’re going in. However, the Heels must figure out a way to consistently convert manageable transition chances in a year where it seems any bit of scoring is hard to come by.

Effort and Intensity

This team’s effort hasn’t been completely there at times this season, but I don’t think it was the problem against the Zags. Guys were fighting for loose balls, they were hitting the glass pretty hard, and they even managed to knock down a few tough shots when the game was still within reach. Obviously, it’s uncharted territory for us to be commending the Heels’ toughness in a game in which they were down 20+ and lost by double digits, but this is where we are.

The harsh reality is that Carolina was never winning that game without Cole Anthony (and probably not with him, either). However, UCLA is a fairly significant drop in competition. As hard as it is to watch this team lose four straight games, there’s something to be said about their willingness to keep fighting. If they can bring the same energy they brought to Spokane on Saturday, snapping that four-game losing streak is entirely possible and maybe, just maybe, this train will start rolling in the right direction.