That... could have gone better. UNC wasn’t expected to beat a veteran Iowa team, but all the same, the Heels’ obvious talent advantage and brief taking of the lead midway through the second half still showed us what could have been, or possibly could be, before a crushing end. But, encouragingly, unlike the Texas loss and unlike most of last year’s losses, this one both showed the promise of the good things this team can do and had some real educational points rather than just being a frustrating close loss where the team just didn’t, or couldn’t, do something right. So let’s take a closer look at those points:
Guard Growth is a Process
One of the most encouraging things I saw on the offensive end for Carolina was the growth of Caleb Love and R.J. Davis. They combined for 23 points and found ways to get into the paint (though Love’s first half was a bit of an adventure in efficiency), but more importantly, just through improving their mastery of UNC’s system from Maui to now, combined for 14 assists. Neither player is opening up lanes that aren’t there, or fitting the ball through impossible spaces (though Love’s been close a few times). They’re just learning to make the right passes at the right times to the right places, and once the Heels got their feet under them in this game, they were rewarded with easy buckets. Overall, the Heels had 22 assists on 31 made baskets, a much friendlier ratio than we saw in any of the Heels’ previous games this year or last year, and something that shows that this team is capable of running Roy Williams’ offense well. Knowing that’s the case is a huge relief after what we’ve seen recently. But on the other side of that coin, it’s clear that both freshmen are still working on learning to play team defense the way they need to. Caleb Love, after making up for any deficiencies in that area with his stellar on-ball defense and a couple of highlight blocks against earlier competition, was run ragged by his own proclivity to over-help on drives to the basket, which led to him being late on closeouts and taken advantage of on fly-bys because of it. People have been complaining for over a decade about UNC perimeter defenders overhelping in the post and leaving shooters open, but Roy Williams swears that wasn’t the gameplan for this game, at least, and that Love and other perimeter defenders just did so anyways. On Davis’ end, he didn’t have the same confusion that Love did, but because he’s so small, his margin for error on defense is even thinner, and he’s still making enough freshman mistakes that he can get taken advantage of. The good news is that they’re clearly defending with effort and intent - they just need time to learn. That, at least, is something to build on as ACC play approaches.
UNC cracked the 80-point barrier! Hooray! On a more serious note, the promise of this year was that the Heels now had multiple offensively capable players, as opposed to last year’s nightmare. We hadn’t quite seen that come to light yet, and it was unclear if that was due to early-season issues of chemistry and adjusting to college-level play, the weird rims in Asheville, or if we’d just been fed lies and were in for another season of bricklaying. After this game, I’m more confident that the answer is those first two than the latter, which is a relief. After a cold start to the first half, UNC finished with more-than-respectable shooting splits as well as the coveted 80-point mark: 47.7% shooting, 40% from beyond the arc. In the second half, they were downright on fire, shooting 54.5% from the field and hitting 4 out of their 7 three-point attempts. Hitting 6 out of 15 threes is a modest amount generally, but the wealth was spread around a bit, with four players combining for those 6 makes: another good sign. Iowa’s a worse defensive team than the last two that UNC has played, but they’re a veteran squad with perimeter-oriented size and length, so shooting well against them in particular is something to celebrate and something that seems repeatable. Something that’s bound to frustrate fans is the team’s inability to make free throws, after another 60% showing including two front-end misses on one-and-ones and three empty two-shot trips. Killers. But free throw shooting invariably stabilizes over time, so I’m not super concerned about that after just 5 games, especially when the team has guys we know can shoot. This isn’t the 2014 team, at least yet.
The Need to Limit Mistakes
UNC lost this game primarily for two reasons: The first, that Iowa made 17 three-pointers (from just three players!). The second was that Iowa capitalized on the opportunities that a young team gave them. UNC still hasn’t solved its turnover problem, even though 18 on 76 possessions is much preferable to 20+ on, like, 60 of them against teams that slow it down. What’s not preferable is that Iowa scored 23 points off UNC turnovers, several of them live-ball. They also scored 21 second-chance points on 14 allowed offensive rebounds, which is downright embarrassing given the bigs that UNC has for rebounds. Luka Garza is a menace on the boards, but he’s just one player, and he only had half the offensive rebounds for the Hawkeyes. Iowa rebounded a full third of their misses, which, again, is going to have Roy Williams steamed. On the flip side of that stat, UNC had 15 offensive rebounds, but just 14 points off them, failing to capitalize on their own opportunities. Add the aforementioned free throw shooting woes and, even after Iowa’s barrage from outside, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this was in large part a self-inflicted loss. The good news is those happen with a young team, and especially the way that Roy Williams’ teams usually grow from November to February, you can imagine those mistakes being cleaned up and leaving us with a very dangerous UNC team. But with a ranked Ohio State team being the Heels’ next test, at least somewhat cutting down on those self-inflicted wounds is going to be temporarily quite important if only to avoid a 3-game losing streak, which will not feel good. (This was written before UNC announced a game against NCCU to replace Saturday’s lost game against Elon)