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Tar Heel Hangover: Improvement?

Mixed results against vastly different opponents have football and basketball fans alike scratching their heads.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 08 North Carolina at Iowa Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our opportunity to review the games of the last week, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

A blowout win on the gridiron against an inferior opponent was the perfect tune-up for the regular season finale at Miami. On the hardcourt, it was a hard-fought road loss against the third ranked team in the country. There were positive signs in both games but enough caveats to raise questions. The Hangover is here to clear fans’ heads.

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

Let’s start with Iowa. This is a good team with experienced players that were hot from beyond the arc. There are some very telling stats to jump into and coach around.

First, believe it or not, Iowa did not shoot much better percentage-wise than the Heels from deep. It just felt that way because the Hawkeyes hit every shot they threw up in the first half. Carolina finished 6-15 from deep (40%) while Iowa went 17-40 (42.5%). The difference, of course, is in the attempts. Fans should ask, why would a team with the most dominant interior player in the country shoot 40 threes?

The answer is two-fold. First, as was stated repeatedly during the broadcast, Carolina has a very big front line. Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot, Walker Kessler, and Day’Ron Sharpe all took turns guarding Luka Garza. Even though Garza finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, it took him 35 minutes of game time, 20 field goal attempts, and 8 free throws to get those numbers. That’s pretty good interior defense and should be the model moving forward.

The problem was on the perimeter. Not only were starting backcourt players R.J. Davis and Caleb Love bad at handling the ball (7 turnovers combined), but they were also very slow defensively. Combined with sluggish closeouts from Leaky Black, the Iowa guards were wide open on the perimeter. That’s why you shoot 40 threes. You know who else would make a lot of threes against that defense? Everybody.

Here is the good news; after a horrible start (more on that below), the second half opened with a bang for the Heels. In just over 10 minutes, Carolina turned a 12 point halftime deficit into a 1 point lead. With that kind of effort, no one in the country could compete with this team. Figuring out how to bring that effort, intensity, and focus for 40 minutes is the biggest task facing the coaching staff this week.

Mack Brown faces a different set of issues. With a very SEC-like schedule, the Heels took on an outmatched non-conference opponent late in the year to get momentum and stay sharp. 42 first half points later, and the game was already over. This is the way that highly ranked teams are supposed to play late in the season. The challenge now is to perform in the national spotlight Saturday against Miami.

D’Eriq King will be quite the test. Not only is he accurate (20 touchdowns and 4 interceptions this year), he is also mobile. King ran for over 100 yards against NC State and has nearly 500 total rushing yards on the year. Carolina has had a lot of trouble containing scrambling quarterbacks over the last two years. Chazz Surratt must make tackles in open space and the secondary has to cover well in order to limit the Miami offense. A major bowl is on the line.

Key stat for the week.

A quick look at the free throws made vs. free throws missed + turnovers stat. On Tuesday, Carolina went 12-20 from the line and committed 18 turnovers. The .46 ratio continues a trend of three poor games that resulted in two losses. This is a talented squad but they will not beat quality competition without improving on the basics like hitting free throws and taking care of the ball. When your best offense is offensive rebounds and put-backs, then just taking shots is important.

The other issue here is the lack of consistent energy. Again. Comebacks require a ton of effort and even though this squad is deep, playing for 30 minutes from behind is not a winning formula. Iowa dominated the first 10 minutes to take a 15 point lead. Texas started half way through the first half and turned a 5 point deficit into a 16 point lead with just under four minutes left. Stanford went on a 25-11 run over an 8 minute stretch in the first half. Even UNLV jumped out to an immediate 13-0 lead four minutes in.

I do not have a stat for it, but in the first half everyone was jogging on defense. In the second half, they were sprinting.

These are not just runs, they are prolonged lapses in effort. Sometimes it is the starters, sometimes the bench, sometimes both. With 10 players getting minutes, it is not fatigue. I remain convinced that the key is the return of Anthony Harris. He is not yet running full court drills, but this team needs him. He is a spark of energy, can handle the ball, shoot, and play defense. He will relieve some of the pressure from a freshman backcourt that is playing 30 minutes a game with mixed results.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

A late replacement puts the Heels back on the court against NC Central on Saturday. This is an outstanding development as the best cure for a lot of the ills is just more time playing together. A developing team needs time to develop.

All eyes are on the game in Coral Gables Saturday for a trip (maybe) to the Orange Bowl. The assumption is that with a win, the Heels could be the highest ranked ACC team not to make the playoff. This requires Clemson to beat Notre Dame in the ACC Championship and for both teams to make the playoff. Ohio State’s whining exemption is a complicating factor, but both ACC championship contenders should get in with a reasonably close game.

Final Thoughts

With everything going on, it is just nice to have sports to look forward to. These are fun teams to watch play.

Happy holidays!