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Tar Heel Hangover: Signs of life for the men’s basketball Team

Two solid outings last week netted one victory and some hope.

NCAA Basketball: Miami-Florida at North Carolina Nell Redmond-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.

It has been a very long couple of months for Carolina fans. Injuries, missed shots, and lots of losses have been the reality of the season. Wednesday held every possibility of being the proverbial straw that broke the team. After leading for the entirety of regulation, poor decisions and poor execution let the Hokies claw their way into overtime, and then double overtime. Yet even after such a heartbreaking loss, an energized team took the floor Saturday and finally pulled out a much needed victory.

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

This article has pulled no punches in leveling criticism this season. The two impressive efforts last week, however, deserve praise so this week’s Hangover is dedicated to the positives. Here is the non-exclusive list:

1. Great attitude all week. Even without closing the deal on Wednesday, the Tar Heels showed a tremendous of amount of fight on the road in a hostile atmosphere. It would have been very easy for the team to come out flat and just assume another road loss. Instead, it was a battle for forty minutes, and five more, and five more. It was a wonderful fight for a team that was extremely shorthanded. Carolina only played seven players, with Christian Keeling tallying a mere 9 minutes. The iron men were Garrison Brooks (48 minutes), Justin Pierce (45 minutes), Leaky Black (47 minutes), and Andrew Platek (an incredible 49 minutes).

Even with leaving it all on the floor Wednesday, the team bounced back with a superb effort against another short-handed opponent Saturday. It appeared that the confidence finally started returning as the contest against Miami progressed. The atmosphere for such a turnaround must be created in the locker room and during practice. Roy Williams deserves a lot of credit for just surviving the week, much less actually getting a win.

2. Justin Pierce playing the three. Pierce has been playing out of position most of the year. With only Brooks and Armando Bacot on the interior, Pierce has consistently been the first big man off the bench. The issue with that is it forces him to play the four where he has been out-manned from a size perspective. This has especially manifested on the offensive end where Pierce would prefer to be a step back shooter but instead has had to battle inside. With the shortened bench on Wednesday, Pierce had extended minutes with both Brooks and Bacot on the floor. It is a lineup that could work for brief stints going forward, taking account of the need to get the rest for the big men going forward.

Allowing Pierce to roam the perimeter with a smaller player guarding him accomplishes two offensive needs. First, it makes for easier entry passes to the post because he can see and throw over his defender. Second, it makes his three-point shots much easier. Pierce is not going to drive around defenders so foot speed is less an issue than size. Perhaps his 4-7 from three week will jumpstart the remainder of his season.

3. Andrew Platek has a place on this team going forward. Once again, he played 49 minutes against Virginia Tech. His shooting is still not good, but his defense is improving. For the week, Platek put up 14 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists. Most impressive, given his extended minutes and ball handling responsibilities, Platek only had one turnover against the Hokies and only one against the Hurricanes. With a little better shooting, he could become and extremely valuable bench piece moving forward.

This is not an argument that Andrew Platek is a long term starter for the Tar Heels, but he proved this week that he can be a valuable part of a winning formula.

4. The season is not lost. I know there is a long way to go and it is an uphill battle. I know what the record is and what the schedule looks like. I know just how deep the hole is. What the team showed on Wednesday is that they will fight hard from this point forward. On Saturday, they showed that they remembered how to score and how to win.

Jeremiah Francis is still working back into game shape but his future looks promising. Garrison Brook is a beast inside. Bacot is clearly still learning how to navigate the game with his potential. Brandon Robinson is finally shooting again. Supporting pieces like Leaky Black, Pierce, and Platek are stepping up their games. The only missing piece has been sitting on the bench in a suit. Let’s hope the doctor’s report today is a good one.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

Sometimes a quick turnaround for a team coming off a big victory is a good thing. Coming out of a shooting slump? Get back on the court as soon as possible to keep the momentum going.

For a team with a shortened bench, however, only one full day of rest can be a challenge. With a short trip to Raleigh, there will be another challenging atmosphere and another good but not great opponent. Saturday, the Heels return home to take on a struggling Boston College team that has somehow won four conference games already.

Keeping the good vibes going requires more victories; two this week would be perfect.

Go Heels!