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Three Things Learned: ACC Tournament Edition

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What did we learn about the Heels over the weekend?

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Duke vs North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Alright. Everyone has had a day to process that epic ACC Tournament semifinal game. You’ve read all the articles and probably said a few inappropriate words. You’ve perhaps questioned why UNC just can’t seem to win one possession games against Duke. (Of UNC’s last 7 losses to Duke, three have been by two points or less).

Fortunately, the sun has come up twice since then, and the ACC tournament has concluded. Most of us will “relax” as we wait for the NCAA committee to announce their selections tonight. All we can do is hope they don’t screw over mid-majors or overvalue mediocre teams just because of the “conference they play in”. (I’m looking at you, N.C State, Clemson, and Indiana).

With all that said, here are three things we learned from the ACC tournament.

Tale of Two UNC’s

Obviously, North Carolina loves to push the pace. That reached another level in the ACC Tournament. The Heels blistered Louisville for 27 fast break points. They followed that up with 20 more against Duke. Both games had a rather “average” 73 and 75 possessions, which is right in UNC’s comfort zone, so they didn’t necessarily have more opportunities. They were just so fast and decisive in transition that those possessions produced points before the defense could get set up.

How many times did it seem that Coby White followed behind Louisville’s big men into the paint, and then blew by them for a bucket? With the exception of about 10 minutes against Duke – the closing minutes of the first half and the opening minutes of the second half – that speed made Carolina unbeatable.

However, they left a lot to be desired. Most will point out the 4-24 shooting performance from three against Duke. On the season, the Blue Devils have held North Carolina to just 18-78 from three, but going just 7-20 against Louisville wasn’t exactly spectacular. Opponents’ defense deserves credit, but some of the problems were self-inflicted. Long scoring droughts have been common in recent weeks, often caused by lack of ball and player movement, and poor shot selection.

The Heels went scoreless for three minutes in the first half while Louisville erased a 13-point lead to a single digit. In the second half against Duke, a lonely Nassir Little free throw was the only points from 8:22 to 3:30, before Cameron Johnson earned an and-1 in transition. When playing good-but-not-great teams (like Louisville) an average shooting performance or poor execution can be offset by superior tempo. That is not true against the best teams in the country.

If they can solve that riddle and match their breakneck pace with respectable outside shooting and/or half-court execution, there is not a team in the country that can beat them.

The ACC deserves three #1 seeds

Two of the nation’s top four teams played each other on Friday night. At the time, that semifinal was thought to be a de facto playoff for the final #1 seed in the tournament. If that turns out to be true, it would be an unfortunate turn of events, because the ACC deserves three top seeds.

There are plenty of reasons why the ACC deserves 75% of the #1 seeds. There are equally valid reasons why UNC, Duke, or Virginia don’t deserve top billing. I’m not going to re-litigate all the arguments. You can find them all over the internet. (Try here, here, here, or here.) Besides, arguing on the internet over the unknown is nothing more than a self-licking ice cream cone.

HOWEVER… discussing possibilities of future events is what the internet was created for. With Duke’s win last night, it’s safe to assume Virginia and Duke are locked in as top seeds. Depending on your view of Gonzaga, that leaves no more than two seeds up for grabs. Here’s a quick graphic to show how certain top-10 (per the super-quirky NET rankings) have fared against each other this year, followed by a quick recap of where the top teams stand.

(Note: The graphic does not include yesterday’s Kentucky-Tennessee game.)

  • Kentucky’s loss yesterday *should* leave them out in the cold after their failing to capture a piece of the SEC regular season or tournament championships.
  • Gonzaga lost in their conference championship. They beat Duke in Maui, but losses to Tennessee and UNC may haunt them. It’s always tough to determine how much to punish a dominant mid-major because they play in a weak conference.
  • Tennessee holds two wins over Kentucky and one over Gonzaga, and finished second in the SEC regular season. They’ll have a chance to make one last statement over Auburn in the SEC title today.
  • Michigan State’s 12 Q1 wins is tied with Virginia for most in the nation, but two losses to a very mediocre Indiana team could be their undoing. They hold a 3-1 record over Michigan and Purdue, and can add another victory in today’s B1G title game.
  • Texas Tech lost in the conference tournament. They’re out.

UNC needs Nassir Little

Here’s the bottom line: Garrison Brooks needs help. Without a fully conditioned Sterling Manley as his back-up, that help falls on Little, Luke Maye, and Cameron Johnson. All three of those players share time in the post, but Maye and Cam are often needed elsewhere. As we all saw against Duke, if Brooks gets into foul trouble, Little’s the guy who will be asked to fill in.

Whatever you think of Little’s season, and it’s fair to say it hasn’t fully lived up to the fan’s expectations, the young man has steadily improved. Gone are the days where he showed the effort that we pointed out back in December against Kentucky. He’s struggled to get some shots to fall, but his aggression and intensity on the boards has changed UNC’s trajectory in a number of games.

Yes, he makes mistakes. He gets lost on defense and can force the issue on offense. He also poses mismatches against 90% of UNC’s opponents and has the potential to change a game in just a handful of possessions. His back-to-back dunks allowed the Heels to tie Duke early in the second half, and it was his dunk that gave the Heels a 1-point lead with 47 seconds left.

It was also Little who forced Zion’s miss on the ensuing possession. If anyone wants to complain that Little “allowed” Zion to get an easy put back for the lead, I’d like to point out that there were three Tar Heels in the area, and Williamson is a freak of nature with lightning quick jumping ability. Dude made a play. It’s that simple.

How did Little respond? By being in position to tip in the potential game winner on Coby’s last gasp heave.

In 36 minutes of action in two games, he contributed 14 points and 11 rebounds. It took a rough 6-16 combined shooting effort, but on the season he’s 46% from the floor. That efficiency should improve. UNC will need that kind of effort and production from him going forward if they want a chance to win their next six games.