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UNC at Virginia Tech: Three Things to Watch

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It would seem a bounce-back has to start starting now

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welp.

The Heels now sit at 8-9, with their only ACC win having been a season opener that may well have been played a lifetime ago given how different the team looks now than it did then, and sitting on their second four-game losing streak of the season. Roy Williams had only had one streak that ugly in his entire UNC career prior to this.

We’ve talked over and over about all the things this team needs to figure out, but games keep being played and we keep seeing the same elementary foibles. This team lacks an offensive creator, most obviously, but also just looks leaderless, on the verge of unraveling at the hint of any tension. You have to believe that Roy Williams has tried everything he can think of to try and get something going for these kids mentally in the absence of the point guard who was at least papering over all of this at the beginning of the season.

Just in public, he’s alternated between calling himself fireable for this year’s losses and calling out this group of players for their lack of offensive talent, and he’s been a lot more emotional about injuries than in years past: seeing if they’d get it together for his sake, to prove him wrong, or for their fallen comrades. It doesn’t seem like any of it has worked.

But we are sports fans, and that means eternally continuing to invest the mental energy of optimism on the hope that things will work out before it’s too late (of course, if you’ve chosen to stop doing this, that is entirely valid too). Next up is a trip to Blacksburg to see the Virginia Tech Hokies. It’s getting hard to do this because we’re seeing the same issues game after game, but here are some things to look for in this one:

Scoring

It’s obvious to say at this point that this year’s UNC team has struggled to score like no other before it in Roy Williams’ tenure, but I’m actually here to say that they seemed to have found a kind of rhythm in their past few games before the disaster at Pitt: Except for the previous Pittsburgh game, the Heels had been consistently cracking 70 points in recent contests. That’s not a huge benchmark, but it does give you defendable point totals, if you defend reasonably well.

Obviously, that fell off a cliff against Pitt, and the result was a game that was almost never even in doubt, even when the Panthers basically stopped scoring in the back stretch of the second half. My colleague Jake did a breakdown of all the ways UNC managed to fail to score in the post against Pitt, but the long and short of it is that this team needs to get back to what it can do: create good post-up opportunities and find your shooters (Brandon Robinson and maybe Justin Pierce), and hit a backdoor cutter whenever possible.

The offensive options are limited with the personnel on the floor, but you can win basketball games by doing a few things well on that end, particularly if you defend. It seemed like this team was starting to get that, even though they weren’t putting it together on the court. They need to rediscover it. Virginia Tech’s a pretty average defensive team, so it may or may not be the right matchup for it to happen.

Defensive Switches

Hey, I was kind of right! I thought Coach Williams might start teaching his “21” man-to-man sagging scheme in the week off after the Clemson heartbreaker to throw some different looks at opponents and maybe discover a defensive scheme that worked better. While there wasn’t much of that specifically in the Pittsburgh game, Williams did throw in his point-zone later in the game and successfully slowed Pitt’s offense to a near halt, though this team’s continued transition woes held them back from capitalizing in any meaningful way.

Virginia Tech plays basically five-out and does not prioritize rebounding in really any meaningful capacity, so a zone might not be the best option here, even a 1-2-2 that’s built to move to where the ball is on the perimeter. But it definitely did something in its first appearance this season, so I’m intrigued to see what, if any, defensive wrinkle Williams throws in for this game: The point-zone that saw some success, “21” which might be ideally suited to this particular opponent, or something we haven’t considered.

Given VT’s anomalously perimeter-focused offense, even more than most “modern” college programs, it’s a fair bet to say his usual overhelp “22” is extremely not the right way to go for this one, especially with a team that hasn’t been able to run it properly even in better matchups.

Response

I mentioned in my introduction how this team has, frustratingly, failed to respond to almost any of the words or obstacles that have been thrown its way this season. Williams’ various public motivation techniques or the ones he surely implements in private, the losses of their teammates for extended amounts of times, blowouts, close losses, lost leads, pivotal calls, a loss that ended an all-time stat, all reasons you’d expect a team to come out the next time on fire, and yet there’s been... nothing.

I’m not usually the “mental makeup” or “toughness” or “want-to” or “bulletin board” person on this site, because I think those are very often mean-spirited and needlessly machismo explanations for sports not happening the way that fans want them to. Being a high-level athlete is mental training. With very few exceptions, you don’t get to a level where you’re on TV weekly and not develop that kind of “toughness.”

Sure, some have it more than others, but you’d be hard-pressed to convince me it’s ever the actual reason for a team’s success or failure. But even I can tell that this team has, despite numerous attempts by its coach and by the world around it, refused to spark and change the things in its control about this spate of losses and how they’ve been happening. But they hadn’t been flat-out embarrassed in a while, probably since the Ohio State game. Out of the other candidates, Wofford was close (and had beaten UNC kind of recently, TBH), UVA at JPJ was basically expected, Gonzaga was at least back-and-forth, and Georgia Tech, while it could qualify, was more frustrating, given that nauseating drought, than embarrassing.

In other words, if there’s something to hope for, it’s that this factor is either a final push or just the kind of thing this team needed to do and make right the things that it for some reason hasn’t been able to until now. All we can do is hope. Such is the nature of sports.