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The Dean’s List: Assessing Carolina basketball’s start to the season

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Two losses in the non-conference schedule is never an easy pill to swallow, but this year may be an exception.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to The Dean’s List! The new weekly segment that will bring readers hot takes, freezing cold takes, and everything in between from the world of Carolina athletics. In the spirit of creativity and experimentation, we thought it would be fun to see if you, the readers, would be interested in something perhaps a little different on a weekly basis. We hope you enjoy it, but of course if you do not enjoy it, that’s ok too! Life is all about trial and error, right?

For the very first edition of The Dean’s List, I would like to dive a little bit into UNC’s start to the basketball season. With the non-conference season ending this weekend following the game against 20th-ranked Ohio State, the Tar Heels have a chance to enter the regular season 5-2 with a win against the Buckeyes, or 4-3 with a loss.

For some of you I know that you are thinking exactly what I’ve been thinking to this point, which sounds something like, “I have no idea what is going on with this team so far, but I really hope we aren’t headed down the same road as last year.” My response to myself has been that things aren’t headed down nearly the same path as last season — this year’s team is loaded with a lot more talent, a lot more depth in the paint, and some veteran players have been looking like an improved version of themselves so far. So then why do the Heels have two losses already? The super easy answer to that question is that a young team with six new (and important) pieces ran into two ranked veteran teams that really didn’t have the same learning curve to start the season. The second answer lies within the first answer: experience.

This season the North Carolina Tar Heels, perhaps more than any other season in the one-and-done era, resembles more of a Kentucky or Duke team than it does a Gonzaga or Baylor team. Feel gross yet? I know, me too. However, it is the brutal truth, though the difference between the Heels and the other two Blue Blood programs is that they returned key veterans in Armando Bacot, Garrison Brooks, Leaky Black, and Andrew Platek. Kentucky and Duke more or less did not do the same, and it shows in their record.

The Blue Devils currently have a 2-2 record with losses against No. 4 Michigan State and No. 13 Illinois. These are harmless losses that are no different than UNC’s, right? Well that’s where things get fun — Illinois lost to an unranked Missouri team after taking down Duke, and against Coppin State the Blue Devils didn’t look very good at all despite the win. Don’t believe me? Look through the play-by-play scoreboard on ESPN.com and see how many times Coppin State threatened to complete a comeback. However, the final score really says all that you need to know.

For the Kentucky Wildcats, things are somehow even more tragic. Receiving zero votes in this week’s AP top 25 poll, the Wildcats are an abysmal 1-4 to open the season, with losses to Richmond, No. 5 Kansas, Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame. Their next two games are against UCLA and Louisville, meaning that there’s a really good chance that John Calipari’s team could go into SEC play with a 1-6 record. Without an expansion of the field this season, this team is trending far away from getting into the NCAA tournament unless they can win the SEC tournament.

Looking at these two teams, things honestly don’t look bad at all for the Tar Heels. They absolutely had a chance to win against Texas before the super predictable buzzer beater happened, and against Iowa they showed a form of resiliency that I didn’t know they had in them. With that said, two major things must start showing some form of progress starting this Saturday against Ohio State to make me believe that this team is capable of reaching their full potential.

The first major thing that needs to be fixed immediately is that the Heels must find a way to kill these slow starts with fire. With the exception of the game against Charleston, UNC has fallen behind in the first 10 minutes of every game that they have played so far this season. The game against UNLV was especially jarring, as they trailed 0-13 in the opening five minutes and didn’t take the lead until there were three minutes left in the first half. With a shortened non-conference schedule, it’s imperative that this team figures out how to get off to better starts, because climbing out of huge holes in ACC play is a recipe for disaster.

The second biggest thing that needs to be figured out this weekend is the Caleb Love / RJ Davis conundrum. When these two players are together on the court, things do not look nearly as smooth as they do when one of them is on the bench. Is the answer to start Andrew Platek and let one of them be the backup? Or are we just witnessing the massive growing pains of two freshman guards that didn’t get anything close to the preseasons that those before them got? The answer is likely more of the latter than the former, so more than anything it could just be a game of patience as these two players become acclimated with the college game. I am also still trying to figure Caleb Love out specifically as a player, but perhaps that is a conversation for another time.

To wrap things up, I think that this year’s team will ultimately be fine. UNC’s veteran core has been the key in keeping this team from suffering the growing pains of other young teams, freshman center Day’Ron Sharpe has been incredible, and the freshman guards are likely to get up to speed soon. If UNC does lose to Ohio State this weekend it will be frustrating, but not super concerning. This is 2020-21 Carolina Basketball, which is really a reflection of the entire college basketball landscape so far: sloppy, sometimes satisfying, and most importantly, very, very weird. I’m just really glad that the Heels are back, and hopefully things end much better this time around than they did back in March.

Be safe, be kind to one another, and Go Heels!