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Tar Heel Hangover: The final push

With only a week left in the regular season, it is clear this team is good. It is not yet clear how far they can go.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our 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.

Two games and two wins. Both the home matchup against Syracuse and the road game against Clemson seemed like struggles for much of the game. The defense was not particularly sharp in either contest but the offense did just enough to survive both. This team, however, still has a lot of interesting questions heading into the final week of the season.

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

I would rest. Of course, Roy will not rest because that’s just not what he does. A scary moment in the first half led to Williams’ departure from the game. In a particularly impressive show of sportsmanship, Clemson Head Coach Brad Brownell stopped his players from advancing the ball when he noticed Williams collapse on the sideline. A lot of credit to Brownell for such a classy move.

Williams noted postgame that he could likely have returned. Sterling Manley did return for a bit of game action for the first time in a long time. Still no sign of Leaky Black who is undergoing a lengthy recovery from his high ankle sprain. With Manley’s return, there is a bit more interior depth, which provides needed insurance against foul trouble for Garrison Brooks. I, however, am greedy and would love 10 minutes of Leaky in the postseason.

What continues to remain unusually unclear at this point so late in the season is precisely what type of team the Heels are going to be in the tournament. Against Duke, the team shot 2-20 from three but scored 88 points and won easily in Cameron. Against Florida State, the outside shooting was better at 7-20 but it was Nassir Little’s effort on the interior that really won the game. Coby White was a combined 1-11 from deep for those two games.

Last week was a completely different story. White went 6-11 from three against both Syracuse and Clemson (12-22 total). The team went 9 for a whopping 29 from three against the Orange and hit an amazing 34-37 from the free throw line. That’s 61 points from three and free throws. Against Duke, the total was 16. That is an incredible swing in offensive focus for a highly ranked team that does not appear to be making any designed systematic changes.

The Clemson game continued the sudden trend of going outside-in offensively, with 33 three point attempts and 55 combined points from three and free throws (13 threes and 16 made free throws). It seems that the only common denominator is winning, but that is the most important one.

Let this sink in; last week with two games against top 15 ranked teams, Carolina shot a total of 40 three pointers. This week against two tournament quality teams who are unranked, Carolina shot 62. Last week they won by a total of 34 points. This week, they won by a total of 10. For all of the outside weapons, maybe it’s time to look inside.

The question remains whether or not this unpredictable offensive style can sustain a deep tournament run. On the one hand, scoring from deep is a great way to put pressure on the opponent’s offense. The problem is that the deep shooting has largely become a two man show. Cameron Johnson and White were a combined 12-19 from three against the Tigers. The rest of the team was 1-14. If either one of them is off on a night, then the mid-to-high 30’s percentage plummets. For a team with so many scoring options, they have become strangely limited on the perimeter.

The pressure for Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks to produce on the interior out of the set offense is somewhat lessened by the team’s offensive rebounding prowess. Stick-backs count as points in the paint and can help generate buckets instead of empty trips. When this team does not score regularly, the defense is not good enough to prevail. This is not a new concept as it has been discussed repeatedly in this article.

Once again, the scoring drought struck against Clemson. With 18:41 remaining in the game, the Heels held a 9 point lead. They only scored two free throws in the following 8 minutes and the lead turned into a 6 point deficit. That’s a 15 point swing that could mean the end of the season in a couple of weeks. Even with scoring an incredible 33 points in the final 10 minutes and change, the game was a nail-biter to the final possession. This is not the time of year to play with fire.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

Two games left in the regular season. On Tuesday, the (most likely number 4 and maybe 3) Heels travel North to take on Boston College. A win means an undefeated conference road schedule.

Speaking of undefeated, two teams in the nation are garnering a lot of buzz for being undefeated in their own conferences; Gonzaga and Wofford. Both have a loss to . . . Carolina. One other interesting note; the season opening win at Wofford was one more non-conference road game than Duke played all year.

A win also keeps the Heels in the conversation for a 1 seed in the Big Dance. Perhaps more directly, I think a win at the Silvio Conte Forum likely locks up a 2 seed at the worst.

Then there is Saturday. As is always the case, so much is on the line when the Blue Devils come to town. Senior night. A possible share of the conference regular season title. Bragging rights with a season sweep. National seeding. The Columbia pod (which should also be locked up with a win).

The quiet truth is that even an average shooting night at Cameron would have resulted in a 25 point win. A better than average night will be needed Saturday.

Final Thoughts

It is very odd to be this late in the season with a team this good and still not be able to identify with particularity its biggest strength. Maybe that characteristic is its biggest strength.