Alright, UNC escaped Clemson with a win, pushing their ACC record to 14-2. They remain tied atop the conference standings and improved their ACC road record to 8-0. It wasn’t always pretty, but in March it’s the final score that matters the most. Considering coach Roy Williams was forced out of the game in the first half after a bout with of vertigo, the Heels hurdled multiple obstacles on the evening. (Also, kudos to Clemson coach Brad Brownell for helping stop the game when Roy went down on a knee.)
Do they need more balanced scoring? Probably. Was Coby White really good? Yes. It’s hard to believe that he’s only a freshman. Was Coby White head-scratchingly bad? Yes. Remember, he’s just a freshman. Did North Carolina struggle inside the paint? Yes, they were outscored 24-16. Can you what-if this game to death? Absolutely. Everyone will have their own pet peeve or celebration from last night.
At this point of the season, last night’s game had plenty of familiar events. We’ll probably touch on many of them again. After the game was over, North Carolina walked away with a key Quadrant 1 win. That’s all that matters on Selection Sunday.
Let’s check out some quick not-so-obvious lessons from the Saturday night victory.
What is Toughness?
This is an oft-debated topic that really doesn’t have a answer. If you’re a Heels’ fan, you’re well aware of the common criticism that North Carolina isn’t “tough”. It is a divisive comment because it is so difficult to measure. Definitions vary from person to person. You usually are not tough, until you are.
Early in the season, I was 100% in the camp of this team lacking a certain toughness. What exactly? I didn’t know, but going all the way back to the Michigan State loss last season, it was not uncommon to watch North Carolina physically and mentally wilt on the court. That carried over to this season, when the Heels’ first four losses usually involved a lack of aggression, physicality, and focus. Teams punched them in the mouth. Then the nose. Then both eyes. Maybe threw some body-shots for good measure, and usually finished off with a few haymakers.
One stat confirmed what many people were watching. Following the loss to Louisville, when UNC fell behind by as few as six points – just two possessions – they were 1-4. They never even retook the lead in those losses. Rotations were slow. Ball movement was non-existent. A lack of trust and/or familiarity in teammates was noticeable. One-shot possessions were common. There was a mental toughness that didn’t exist. Panic ensued. Mistakes bred more mistakes.
Since that Louisville loss? The Heels are 5-1 in such games, including last night’s averted crisis. The one loss was against Virginia, and the Hoos didn’t re-take the lead until Cameron Johnson missed four crucial minutes in the second half. This team has developed a mental toughness that did not exist early in the season. They don’t wilt or (mostly) become disjointed. Last night, it saved them from embarrassment. Barely.
Early in the season, some fans (myself included) clamored for a Seventh Woods-Coby White backcourt. It made sense from an outsider’s perspective. In theory, the combo would let Coby focus on scoring off the ball, while using Woods on the defensive end and to initiate the offense. For plenty of valid reasons, the coaching staff was not a huge fan of that idea, and played the two together for a few desperate minutes at the end of the Kentucky game. It was not successful.
Last night, however, the combo played together for four minutes. The results were mixed, so any long-term use is to be determined. Roy Williams is not known to experiment in March. It may be an indication that Leaky Black has not progressed in his recovery from a sprained ankle, or it’s a wrinkle the staff is trying out heading into the post-season. Perhaps it’s an attempt to get some offense from the wing with Kenny Williams mired in a shooting slump.
Whatever the reason, it could provide some key flexibility in the final weeks. Without a true shooting guard to give Kenny a breather, pushing White off the ball gives him new ways to score. Any defense that Kenny provides can be augmented by Woods’ above-average on the ball defense and overall pest-like activities. That would also open up additional flexibility for Brandon Robinson at the small forward spot. If Leaky does not return, those additional options will be crucial for a deep-run.
As the season draws down, the presence of Sterling Manley became an increasingly distant memory. However, what we saw last night was not a figment of our imaginations. Manley returned to action, albeit in a very limited capacity. He recorded 1 minute, 1 assist, and was 1-2 from the foul line after drawing a (questionable) flagrant foul.
There was some discussion on social media and on this site about whether Manley should shut it down for the season and apply for what would essentially be a medical redshirt. That would require North Carolina playing 40 games to meet the requisite cut-off for hardship waivers. He had already played in 12 games prior to the ACC season and a player cannot play in more than 30% of competitive games. Some quick match shows 12/40=0.3 – exactly 30%.
With just 31 regular season games on the schedule, those additional 9 games would have to include both the ACC Tournament championship and the NCAA Tournament championship game. That’s a lot of hoping for the “best” while intentionally sitting an asset that could make a difference right now.
Yes, Manley can still provide some meaningful minutes in the coming weeks. Even a few minutes can be important. Ask Scott Cherry (1 minute in the 1993 title game) or Seventh Woods (3 minutes in the 2017 title game). For a team that has struggled at times to contain bigger, taller teams, Manley can absolutely be an asset, even in limited minutes.
This season has not gone the way Manley, the coaches, and fans had hoped. That’s undeniable. However, if the coaching staff and Manley think he can still contribute for a team that is in the running for a #1 seed, then it’s a move that deserves full support. It’s not like he’s Joey Baker, right?