Yesterday, North Carolina defeated Kentucky, pushing their record to 5-2. John Calipari’s Wildcats fell to 1-5, their worst start since 1926. It was a rough start-and-stop game that UNC badly needed to win. Not because Kentucky is good (they are actually borderline terrible), but because the Heels needed a “get right” game before taking on N.C. State on Tuesday.
So, here are three things we learned from the 75-63 victory.
Call Your Own Fouls
At least once a year, the officiating is mentioned in this column. Sometimes it’s for insanely long replay reviews. Other times it’s due to one of a handful of referees insisting that they became the star of a game at some critical juncture. Very rarely do we truly blame the officials for a loss or credit them for a win, and we aren’t about to start that now. (Kentucky fans may differ, but both sides have legitimate gripes).
However, yesterday was comical. It was like three referees met up for a high school JV assignment, huddled at half-court, read the rulebook aloud to each other for the first time, stared in each other’s eyes and said “No. Mercy.” If that’s the mess we get, then just let the players call their own fouls. Hell, get the team managers out there with a whistle and stopwatch, just like at thousands of summer camps. They’ll be better than that Mickey Mouse crew.
Two athletic teams from two historic programs took the court, willing to run and gun to the best of their abilities. A matchup that, despite the two records and slow starts to the season, should have had most college basketball fans salivating. Before yesterday, eight of their previous nine matchups were decided by single digits! UNC looking to rebound from last year’s once-in-a-generation stumble. Kentucky trying to salvage their non-conference season. Less than 96 hours notice they were even playing each other. This had all the makings of a fun and exciting, if not slightly chaotic, afternoon.
Instead, we were treated to 55 fouls (30 on Kentucky, 25 on UNC) and 59 free throws. Four Wildcats fouled out, including three starters. Meanwhile we learned that moving screens are apparently a point of emphasis this deep into the season, and you must politely ask your opponent if you can move into position before receiving a post entry pass. There were 11 fouls called before the first media timeout in the second half, with Kentucky often clinging to a one-possession lead!
Fouls happen every single possession. That doesn’t mean officials are bound by some Referee’s Code of Refereeing to blow the whistle on every trip. This season is already truncated enough. Cancellations and impromptu scheduling will continue to be common. Programs and television networks have to remain flexible. So, for the love of God, can we please not have the officiating ruin one of the few premier matchups of the season?
Big Man Train
Ok. With that rant out of my system, the officiating did highlight a consistent theme we’ll continue to see this season. We haven’t seen it in a few years, but with 3.5 legit big men (Walker Kessler is still under development), UNC is just going to wear teams down. Not from their pace, but from punishment in the paint. That will make many first halves less than exciting for most of us fans, as more experienced (and sometimes more talented) teams hang tough for the first 20 minutes.
But, we’ve already seen the impacts. That interior depth has led to foul trouble for some of the bigger names the Heels have faced. Devin Tillis and Cheikh Mbacke Diong (UNLV), Ziaire Williams (Stanford), Greg Brown (Texas), Luka Garza (Iowa), plus Kentucky’s quartet all finished with four or five fouls against the Heels. Many had to sit for significant stretches to avoid another early, costly whistle.
Those foul troubles are partially fueling UNC’s second half runs, and it’s all thanks to the efforts of the post players.
The Heels have scored 30 or more points in the paint in all seven games. That’s a longer streak than at any point last year. They haven’t been outscored in the paint this season, and some two-man combination of Brooks, Bacot, and Sharpe has scored in double-figures every single game. Last year, opponents outscored UNC in the paint 11 times and equaled their paint production four other times.
I make no apologies for mentioning this idea, though I know many of you will question my knowledge and sanity. This might even be my last post because Tanya may fire me. But, here’s the deal.
We are seven games in and slow starts aren’t “something to watch”. They are a full-blown habit, teetering on the edge of uninhibited expectation. Any opponent from any conference will put UNC into an early-hole right now. That may seem hyperbolic, but North Carolina Central just did it a week ago. So did College of Charleston. So did UNLV.
At this rate, so will N.C. State on Tuesday.
There are only so many chances to come back from those early deficits. As Iowa and Texas already proved, good teams won’t buckle after UNC’s initial response. I guarantee you that the scouting report on UNC now says, “Win the first five minutes of the second half and you win the game”. If you think it’s a forgone conclusion that UNC will struggle in the first half, so does every single opposing coaching staff.
With that said, it’s fair to start wondering if a line-up change is on the horizon, specifically with the Caleb Love-R.J. Davis backcourt. Adrian Atkinson dropped the following tweet after the NCCU game. It’s not a stretch to assume that these numbers didn’t change much yesterday.
Efficiency Margin by Backcourt:— Adrian Atkinson (@FreeportKid) December 13, 2020
Love w/o Davis: +30.9 in 52 min (118.8-87.9), 16.7 TO%
Davis w/o Love: +11.6 in 48 min (105.4-93.8), 33.7 TO%
Love-Davis: +1.3 in 131 min (96.3-95.0), 21.8 TO%
Those are some stark differences and indicate this current dual point guard experiment isn’t working. The only player that can step in and be serviceable on both ends of the court is Andrew Platek. He’s shooting 42.1% from three, has a DRtg of 91.8 (third best on the team) and an overall efficiency of + 17.6, per Sport-Reference. Admittedly, we could write 1,000 words explaining why inserting him in the starting lineup is both a great and/or terrible idea. It’s not clean cut, and the same conversation could include Day’Ron Sharpe on the interior.
A switch like that may have different consequences, especially against more athletic teams (as Texas demonstrated). Platek has also looked confident and comfortable in his current role. Is that worth disrupting? However, how many more slow starts can UNC handle before they actually lose to a noticeably lesser talented team?
The ACC season starts on Tuesday, and four of UNC’s first six games are on the road. These games will count for whatever semblance of a post season is concocted. Roy isn’t immune to mid-season changes, and we shouldn’t be surprised if we see any this week.