It’s time for a short story. My freshman year at UNC coincided with the 2014 season (jeez, was that 6 years ago??), which, for those of you who might need a reminder, featured a UNC team that appeared... how do we say... a smidge hapless at times. It wasn’t to this season’s levels, because that year’s stud point guard was not injured and was indeed able to carry a team that might not have looked like it knew how to function, but the team had lost to Texas, a then-also-ran Belmont squad, and a worse UAB team in non-conference, had a couple of extremely and surprisingly good wins, but started conference play 1-4 with losses to Wake Forest and Miami teams that finished 77th and 117th in Kenpom. It looked dire. Dire enough that, ahead of our 6th conference game, the student body got an email from Carolina Fever that said something along the lines of: “Look. Things are bad. And this Clemson team is not without talent. If there is a year that the most incredible streak in sports is in jeopardy, it is this one. So we need all of you to show up and support this team and give them the energy to keep The Streak (TM) alive.”
Four starters scored in double figures and UNC coasted to one of its easiest victories all season, 80-61. The Heels took that victory and ran with it to the tune of a 12-game win streak that lasted until the last regular season game of the season, at Duke. This included, of course, the 8 Mile game. I know it’s a lot to expect any kind of turnaround, or even salvaging, of a season that looks this bad right now. But this is sports. Magic is always, somehow, possible, and there might not be a better example of it than the Dean E. Smith Center’s curse on Clemson basketball. Until proven otherwise, I choose to believe.
But there’s still an actual game to be played. Here’s some stuff to look out for.
1) Injury Recovery
There’s a lot more wrong with this season than injuries, but they’ve definitely aided the tailspin we’re currently seeing the Heels undergo. There are guys who have missed time, like Cole Anthony, Sterling Manley, and Anthony Harris, but there are also a ton of injuries that seem to be sapping away at the players we’ve seen on the floor. Leaky Black doesn’t look like the heady, decisive player we saw last year. Brandon Robinson’s been in and out of the locker room during games because his ankles keep getting tweaked. And, most devastatingly of all for this roster, Armando Bacot went from averaging a double-double to being unable to finish at the rim or assertively collect rebounds. An already limited team hasn’t even been able to play at its own full strength, from the looks of it, and they haven’t really looked used to their own bodies, let alone the faces around them. As bad as the Pitt loss was, there were signs of this starting to change, especially in the first half: Bacot had his best game in weeks, scoring an efficient 15 points and securing 9 boards while displaying some of the court vision he flashed early on with 4 assists. Black had a short takeover stretch in the first half with 5 straight points and some inspired defensive play, though he regressed hard when forced into playing point guard. Robinson... tweaked his ankle again.
The first step in this team getting right is playing like they know themselves, and that comes either with feeling healthy or with enough training with a hurting body to know what your new normal is. There were signs of one of those things happening in Wednesday’s first half, and hopefully they’ll continue for this team.
2) Point Guard Rotation
As I alluded to above and as my friend Brandon wrote yesterday, UNC has some point guard trouble with Cole Anthony sidelined. K.J. Smith can bring the ball up the court but isn’t enough of an offense creator for himself or others to be useful in lineups for long stretches, Leaky Black has been too tentative to run the offense and also using him at point guard forces UNC’s wing depth behind him and Robinson into the lineup, and that’s bad for everybody. Jeremiah Francis is fun. A lot of fun, actually. But he hasn’t played basketball since 2017 and is still getting his legs under him, and has also been on a fairly short leash due to still learning UNC’s defensive scheme.
I’m not sure what the solution here is, or even if there is one. Maybe Francis’ leash gets longer with more live practice, maybe now that Bacot looks better Justin Pierce gets time at the wing and Black can play point without Andrew Platek or Christian Keeling, both of whom are huge negatives right now, being forced into extended minutes. But UNC and Roy Williams need to figure out a solution to the lead guard problem to try and give the rest of the team some cohesion.
3) Return to defensive discipline
This section’s going to be short, because there isn’t a lot new to be said. Remember when this team was borderline elite at defense, even while (said charitably) figuring the other side of the ball out? That... has not been the case lately, due to a lot of different factors. There are flashes, including several stretches against Pittsburgh where the Heels played immaculate defense until the shot clock hit about 3, and then just expected that the possession would finish itself. That needs to be tightened up. This isn’t a gifted offensive team or a good transition one, but it does have the ability to limit opponents’ points, force bad shots, and make the other team’s life as miserable as they have seemed to make their own. We just need more of the discipline that defined the early part of the season: lock in for the full 30+ seconds, play with active hands, know when and how far to hedge, and for the love of God don’t leave shooters open to swipe at a contested layup on the other side of the lane. Offense will come and go. But this team can control one end of the floor, and if they want to turn their fortunes even a little around, they can’t afford to give up any of the control that they’ve been granted.