The North Carolina Tar Heels return to action tomorrow night when they take on Pitt. The Heels are coming off of a very disappointing defeat to Georgia Tech over the weekend, while Pitt is trying to recover after losing a 16-point lead to fall to Wake Forest. This game will be the first one of a home-and-home series between the two teams, this one being in the Dean Smith Center to kick things off.
To say that the Tar Heels need this win badly is the understatement of the very young calendar year. After Georgia Tech laid them out with a hay-maker in the first half Saturday evening, the Heels suddenly regained their ability to do, well, something. Anything. However, it was too little too late, and Josh Pastner’s squad was able to stick a “We beat UNC in the Dean Smith Center” feather in their proverbial caps. The terrifying thing is it might not be the last time we see that this season, and the Panthers could be next.
If the Heels are going to pull off this win, there’s a number of things that need to happen. However, we’re going to focus on the three most important keys to this game. Let’s take a look.
Responding to Adversity Positively
If you were looking for a specific, maybe even not-so-often thought of key to the game, I’m sorry to disappoint you. However, what is very clear about this year’s team is that they don’t handle adversity well. When Cole Anthony couldn’t play against Wofford the team looked lost. When Anthony Harris went down with an injury the team fell apart. Finally, when Georgia Tech sprinted out to a massive lead, everyone with the exception of Garrison Brooks stood there and took it. I’m normally a big-time defender of UNC basketball teams when it comes to toughness, but it’s time to be brutally honest: this team doesn’t have it.
The worst part about the lack of toughness that this team has is how deep the issue runs. Think about it: have you ever seen an entire basketball team that was afraid to shoot the ball? I personally don’t think I ever have until this season happened, and it’s an issue that will bury the rest of this season if the players can’t get it figured out. Cole Anthony, Coby White, Cam Johnson, and Luke Maye aren’t walking through the door anytime soon, and only one player has the eligibility to return this season. They’re going to have to figure out how to take what happened against Georgia Tech and use it for fuel to get something started, or this game will just be another blood bath.
Is Garrison Brooks the Key?
In desperate times, the best solution to a problem can sometimes be an unlikely one. In the case of the Tar Heels, Garrison Brooks looks like the guy that’s built to try to keep things from sinking anymore than they already have. This isn’t just about his 35 points, or his 11 rebounds, or even his ability to get to the free throw line and knock down 17 attempts. This is about a guy who when things reached their absolute worst he was able to step up to the plate and attempt to put his entire team on his back, and that’s someone that this team needs at least until Cole Anthony returns, and maybe even longer.
From a pure basketball standpoint, Brooks is also looking like the player most equipped from a skill standpoint to prevent what happened against Georgia Tech. A large part of the damage that was done happened in the paint, and Brooks admitted after the game that there were times that he wasn’t focused and missed assignments. When he is locked in, however, he is easily the best defender on the team, and he also proved Saturday night that he’s able to provide some offensive firepower when push comes to shove.
Considering the fact that Armando Bacot has mysteriously disappeared as far as production goes, Brooks will have to have another strong performance if they are going to find a way to take down Pitt. This team needs high-percentage shots and plenty of them, and I expect Brooks to try and take a step forward in being a key player on both sides of the ball for the rest of the season.
Preventing Easy Points
It’s been highly publicized all season long that UNC is not a good shooting team this season. However, it turns out that Pitt isn’t much better. According to Kenpom, the Panthers are 97th in the country in adjusted offense, which is surprisingly a ways below the Tar Heels. Against Wake Forest they managed to finish the game shooting 39% from the floor and their leading scorer Trey McGowens finished the game making just 26% of his attempts.
The problem with all of this is that we’ve not only heard this tale before, but we heard it from a team that just shot 59% in the Dean Smith Center. While on paper this is an opportunity for the Heels to bounce back and get a much-needed conference win to get things back on track, it all starts with better defense. As mentioned earlier, UNC allowed an unreal 58 points in the paint against Georgia Tech, which accounted for 60% of their points. Also notable in all of this is that they made 18 free throws, and when added to their points in the paint, 79% of their final score was from high-percentage shots/opportunities.
If the Tar Heels plan to avoid getting embarrassed in the Dean Dome again, they will have to find a way to lock down the paint and force Pitt to take tougher shots. That plan begins with Armando Bacot finally figuring out a way to stay out of foul trouble, but really it all goes right back around to the first key to this game which is finding a way to prove that this team can be tough, and that it can do all of the dirty work in order to solve some of the more skill-based problems, i.e. scoring. If they can’t make that happen, be prepared for this team to fall two games under .500 before the first full week of January ends.