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Tar Heel Hangover: Road warriors

Two great conference road efforts build momentum entering February.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our Monday morning opportunity to review last week’s games, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

The Tar Heels hit the road for back-to-back away games and finished the week with a pair of comfortable victories. The defense really stepped up in holding both Georgia Tech and Louisville under 70 points. Combined with a balanced offensive attack, the defensive effort makes this team very difficult to beat.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

Coming in to the week, the Heels had been on a tear from three point land. Over the three preceding games, Carolina hit from deep at a rate of 42.9% against Notre Dame (9-21), 45% against Miami (9-20), and 47.1% against Virginia Tech (16-34). Georgia Tech is a very good defensive team all-around, but the Heels still managed a 48.1% night from deep (13-27) in cruising to a 23 point victory.

If this team continues to shoot in the mid-40’s percentage from deep, they likely will not lose another game. In college basketball, however, that level of success against top-tier opponents in every game is just not possible. For teams that shoot a lot of threes, one off night in the NCAA Tournament can mean the end of the season.

This is precisely why the Louisville game is such a positive sign for the rest of the year. The Cardinals’ outstanding perimeter defense limited open looks and held the Heels to only 25% from deep (6-24). A team that solely relies on great perimeter shooting would have folded on the road in such a hostile environment. Instead, Carolina forced the ball into the paint and crashed the boards. The Heels out-rebounded Louisville 49-32 for the game including 18-7 on the offensive glass. The result was a 10-point victory that wasn’t really close for the final 30 minutes of the game.

The interior focus was also very beneficial for Luke Maye, who attempted a team-high 18 shots, got to the line frequently (team-high seven attempts), and scored a team-high 20 points. Maye looked considerably more comfortable in the mid-range game, and although his shooting touch from deep is still missing (1-4 on Saturday following 0-2 against Georgia Tech), Saturday could be the springboard to getting his rhythm back.

Two season-long coaching strategies have also paid dividends over the last week. As my colleague, Jake Lawrence, noted in his three things article, the Carolina defense this year is at a statistically very high level. I was one of the commenters that has been skeptical at best of the results on that end of the floor, but there is certainly reason to be optimistic now. As I noted during the game on Saturday, this team needs its defense to get leads and can use its offense to maintain or expand them. Double digit leads are not surrendered when both teams score at a high pace.

The other important coaching initiative is the bench development. Many teams would be hard pressed to overcome the loss of two significant bench contributors like Sterling Manley and Leaky Black. Carolina’s versatility, however, has allowed for consistent contribution even in the face of occasional foul trouble. The minutes for the starters continue to creep up (Kenny Williams played 37 and Luke Maye 32 in Louisville), but the moderation early in the year should help maintain fresh legs until the full team is healthy again.

A Word of Wisdom from My Grumpy Dad . . .

“I think it was their best game of the year and that’s because it was their best defensive game of the year. They were hustling and scrambling all over the floor. There was also a viciousness on the boards that we have not seen this year.”

MGD is always concerned about the defense, which as analyzed above, is getting better. This comment, however, goes largely to effort and attitude. I absolutely love the term “viciousness” to describe the work on the boards.

There is a fine line in college basketball for maintaining the proper mindset at the proper time. When the environment is loud and boisterous and confrontational, the quiet killer often prevails. It seems that the number of times fans want to see this team yell and get hyped largely equals the number of times that we encourage them to stay calm in the face of adversity. Saturday seemed to be the perfect mix. It could be this intangible combination of fire and ice created by having experience and youth that will pave the way to March victories.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

On Tuesday, the Tar Heels will host NC State. Coming off of a historic home loss against a Virginia Tech team that Carolina destroyed, it is anyone’s guess what Wolfpack team will show up. The first four minutes will be critical for NC State. A few missed shots could lead to a very long day.

Saturday is a trap game. Miami comes to town three weeks after losing to Carolina in Coral Gables. A home date two days later against Virginia, potentially for first place in the conference, looms for the Heels. Staying focused and in the moment will be required to take care of business at home and keep the winning streak rolling.

Final Thoughts

Two great road wins including a bit of redemption summed up last week. The second half of the conference schedule is very unusual, with Carolina playing three very good teams at home for the only matchup of the season (Virginia, Florida State, and Syracuse) along with both games against Duke. It is a good time to be playing well.