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UNC at Pittsburgh: Three Things to Watch

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An early rematch gives the Heels an opportunity to move past one of their first ACC stumbles

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Bless all of you still reading this instead of justifiably entering the arms of apathy, at least temporarily. UNC’s injury woes have only gotten worse in their off week: Aside from the uncertain status of Jeremiah Francis (and the concern that the issue that kept him out of the Clemson game may be a sign that his knee issues won’t ever go away), Brandon Robinson was hit in a head-on collision with a drunk driver around midnight on Saturday, and while he didn’t sustain any serious injuries, he’s apparently sore all over thanks to whiplash and may or may not play tomorrow. We didn’t run an article about it because there have been enough downers to start the season, though Al touched on it here. But that’s where we are. Here’s what to look for as UNC takes the road for the first time in 2020 for a rematch with Jeff Capel and Pittsburgh:

Sustained Effort:

You all know by now that this UNC team, already not exactly good, has nevertheless turned attainable wins and close losses into kinda-close losses and blowouts because, through a combination of inadequate conditioning and negligible depth, they keep finding a stretch in the second half where they are simply unable to score, even at the less-than-stellar rates that they’re hitting for the rest of the game (is that too harsh? It feels too harsh.). My colleague Jake has been talking about this all season: that the Heels have not lost 40-minute games so much as 4-6 minute stretches in each game, where their opponents gain confidence on defense from UNC missing shots and get enough of a lead that this team, not equipped to come back from deficits of more than a possession, can’t scrap back.

If ever there was a time this conference season, even with Francis and Robinson’s statuses up in the air, for this to change, it’s this game: the Heels have had a full week off, they’re seeing an opponent they’ve already played and thus know a little bit about already, and while I’m not usually a proponent of “bulletin board material” or “extra motivation” being anything more than media creations to help write sports narratives (which I am 100% in favor of, to be clear), if being the first team to ever lose to Clemson in Chapel Hill doesn’t lead to renewed energy and motivation, then nothing can. The pieces all line up for this to be a game where the Heels can avoid that deadly stretch, and if they can play for 40 minutes, they give themselves a chance to win.

Defensive Scheme Changes?

UNC has actually been good guarding the three for its past two games: Pittsburgh shot 23.8% from behind the arc and Clemson was actually even worse, 23.1%. But that’s probably been forgotten, in light of Clemson, and specifically Aamir Sims, finding their shooting touch in the last couple minutes of regulation and turning the tide of the game: open looks that hadn’t been falling now were falling, and that was all she wrote. And that could be important: Roy Williams loves his statistics, probably even more than most coaches, but sports people (especially coaches) are weird, and prone to falling victim to narrative and big moments even when logic dictates otherwise (remember back when it was an actual debate whether Kyle Allen had taken Cam Newton’s job? Good times). The last time Williams was concerned about opponents consistently making three-point shots, it was February of 2018, and he implemented a sagging man-to-man, which he calls the “21,” rather than his traditional over-help “22,” and it was somewhat successful. A three-game ACC slide, plus losing to a team suddenly making open looks, could be enough to have him considering such a switch again. For a team that clearly doesn’t have the chemistry that Roy needs, it might be good for them to have some of their responsibilities vis-a-vis helping each other on the defensive end simplified.

Will it end?

I need a win. Please. Some way, somehow. Please, Heels, give us at least an oasis of victory in what has been a desert of terrible to start 2020.