Another road game in the ACC, another win for the Heels. With yesterday’s revenge win in Louisville, UNC is now 5-0 on the road in conference play, and are tied atop the ACC standings with a 7-1 record. Not too shabby for a team that had some panicked fans claiming the Heels would lose in the first round in the NCAA tournament without a very favorable seed.
Nothing like irrational fear in January with a Roy Williams team, right!? Good thing it’s February.
Aside from UNC guaranteeing themselves a wining conference road record (again), here are three things we learned.
Dominating the Paint
When Louisville visited Chapel Hill, they outscored UNC 32-26 in the paint and won the rebounding battle 40-31. That is not typical for UNC teams and caused real concern that the Heels would automatically struggle in games later this year against bigger, more post-centric opponents. It marked a potential trend of North Carolina getting outmanned, pushed around, and punked all over the court by bigger, more physical teams.
Carolina answered the challenge yesterday, and put on a performance Muhammad Ali would have been proud of. North Carolina dominated the paint 38-26 and owned the glass 49-32. They had more than twice as many offensive rebounds as their opponents, winning that battle 18-7, and turned those extra touches into an 18-3 advantage on second chance points. That means the Heels averaged one point for every offensive rebound. Talk about being efficient.
On a day when they were just 6-24 from behind the arc and Coby White was held to single digits for the first time since the last time these two teams met, the offense had to be generated from other areas on the court. Garrison Brooks threw in 12 and 4, while Luke Maye and Cam Johnson each contributed double-doubles. The bench, all four of them, pitched in with 13 total rebounds to aid the cause. Early season gripes about this team’s “toughness” were (and might still be) legitimate, but the past few weeks they have shown an improved ability to impose their will when challenged.
If they can consistently use a team effort to maintain control of the paint, this team has another level of potential that can be unlocked over the next month.
Credit the Bench
Already down key reserve Sterling Manley, the loss of Leaky Black for an undetermined amount of time has shortened the bench to just eight regular contributors. What was thought to be a strength — depth and experience — has been relegated to a nightly hope and prayer. On Saturday afternoon, those prayers were answered with a positive outcome. Their play probably didn’t stand out like it did when Little went off against Virginia Tech or when Brandon Robinson got hot against Notre Dame, but the bench was nothing short of sensational.
There wasn’t one player that stood out more than the other. Seventh Woods, Brandon Robinson, Nassir Little, and Brandon Huffman all had memorable moments. Huffman’s bully move on the block and Little’s buzzer-beating offensive rebound and put back in the first half immediately come to mind. In a combined 59 minutes, the reserve quartet had 10 points on 5-10 shooting, 13 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 blocks 2 steals, and just 2 turnovers. They also provided relief when Cam Johnson and Garrison Brooks both earned two fouls before halftime.
However, no stretch was more important than a two minute and 49 second stretch in the first period. With 7:45 remaining in the half, the Heels held a 24-19 lead. Seventh Woods, Luke Maye, and Cameron Johnson checked in to join Brandon Robinson and Kenny Williams. By the time Woods and Robinson checked out of the game with 4:56 on the clock, the lead had ballooned to 34-19. That’s a far cry from a month ago when a lead would seemingly vanish within seconds of multiple substitutes entering the game.
During those brief moments, Woods had two of his four assists and a defensive rebound. Robinson had a defensive rebound and huge block in transition after a Williams turnover. Louisville missed four field-goal attempts, committed two turnovers and were called for two fouls. North Carolina took a 15-point lead thanks to 10 points from Maye, Johnson, and Williams. All in under three minutes of action and all spurred by the defense and effort of Woods and Robinson.
It might be a stretch to call this defense “elite” at this juncture, but they held Louisville to 0.99 points per possession. Using DadgumBoxScores as a reference, it is already the fifth time in ACC play that UNC has held their opponent to less than 1.0 PPP. If you aren’t much for “advanced” stats like that, then maybe this puts that accomplishment into perspective: The 2016-2017 national champions only held ACC competition below 1.0 PPP in the regular season a total of six games.
Louisville has a top-20 offense according to KenPom, but UNC currently ranks 14th in defensive efficiency with an AdjD of 92.0. Again, if that doesn’t mean anything to you or you don’t understand why that is important, here’s the context:
2017 AdjD: 92.5 (11th), NCAA Champion
2016 AdjD: 94.1 (21st), NCAA Runner-ups
2012 AdjD: 90.7 (11th), NCAA Elite Eight*
2009 AdjD: 92.1 (18th), NCAA Champions
2008 AdjD: 91.9 (14th), NCAA Final Four
2005 AdjD: 89.7 (1st), NCAA Champions
* I will never *not* despise Creighton
In other words, this Heels team is currently directly comparable on defense to UNC’s best teams in the Roy Williams era. Acknowledging that the Heels have had a largely favorable early conference schedule, they are still 3-1 against teams who were ranked when they played each other. Whether or not one thinks Virginia Tech or NC State are grossly overrated, the results are what they are. The Heels deserve credit.
The current AdjD for the Heels is better than that of two national champion UNC teams and an additional national runner-up (some history we have, huh?). Despite some evident flaws and some early season hiccups, the Heels have turned into a potent match-up nightmare. It remains to be seen if they can continue that in the coming weeks when Duke, Virginia, and Florida State come to town.