It’s hard to believe, but UNC’s season did not end on Saturday night. There are still eight regular season conference games remaining. As such, those are eight games I will still watch because, truthfully, I only know one way to be a fan. That way is to celebrate the highs and suffer through the lows.
If you care to join me in what is turning into willful self-torture, then please keep reading for three things to watch when North Carolina travels to Winston-Salem on Tuesday evening.
Leaky Black’s Growth
Leaky Black had a stealthy 8 point, 7 rebound, 9 assist performance against Duke. That was on the heels (no pun intended) of a 10-5-3 performance at Florida State. He has arguably played his best ball of the season, and it is no coincidence they took place when Cole Anthony returned to handle the point guard duties.
Leaky Black is at his best and most beneficial on the wing. Quite simply, he’s a small forward with the potential to develop into a situational stretch-four if he ever learns to stop hesitating at wide open threes. He hits the glass and can initate the fast break off the rebound, but asking him to run a team has proven to be less than mediocre. Lacking explosiveness, elite ball handling, quick decision making and confidence at the point guard spot, he was often out of his element. Last summer, he even told Inside Carolina that he’s most comfortable on the wing.
Now back on the wing for the majority of his minutes, Black has, can, and will use his length on both ends of the court. He can create unique mismatches that most other wings cannot. Wake Forest gives Black another chance to continue that development.
Lost in the heartbreak on Saturday was that UNC’s bench outscored Duke’s 25-13. Granted, outscoring Duke’s bench is not exactly newsworthy since Coach K is notorious for relying on a tight rotation, but this year’s Tar Heels haven’t exactly been coming at opponents in waves. Those 25 points were the fifth most points scored by UNC’s reserves all season. Those five games are:
Nov. 8- Notre Dame, 29 points
Dec. 18- Gonzaga, 53 points
Dec. 21- UCLA, 31 points
Feb. 1- Boston College, 30 points (Cole Anthony had 16 points off the bench)
Feb. 8- Duke, 25 points
Obviously, UNC’s bench is severely depleted. They are currently dressing out 10 scholarship players and usually roll seven deep. Roy only called on eight players on Saturday. One of those players was walk-on Walker Miller for a briefly injured Garrison Brooks. It’s hard to get production from your bench when you can’t go past a seventh man.
UNC’s bench has only outscored their opponent’s 11 times this year, but seven of those were victories. The four losses? Gonzaga, Pittsburgh (game 1), Boston College, and Duke. Three of those were, uh, winnable.
Regardless, Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce both provided much needed scoring and, yes, swagger on Saturday. They’ll need to bring those vibes on Tuesday night — especially if Armando Bacot and Garrison Brooks go a combined 4-14 from the free throw line again.
After a couple of games getting Cole Anthony comfortable with a mid-season team, North Carolina looked like a traditional UNC squad. They pushed the pace, big men ran to the rim, and quick decisive passing led to high-percentage buckets. Wings cut to open space, screeners made contact with defenders, shooters showed increased confidence and Anthony displayed improved command and discipline. An optimist would argue they turned a corner, but this is 2020 so I don’t want to get my hopes up.
However, that increased pace and ball movement led to 23 assists on 36 field goals. Only the Miami game featured more made buckets and assists. Their 16 fast break points also tied for their second most, and the highest total since UCLA in Las Vegas. After a brief hiatus against Boston College and FSU, the team that walloped Miami and embarrassed N.C. State returned for approximately 42 minutes of action. .
We’re still waiting for a wire-to-wire performance against a quality opponent. We may be waiting until next season. However, Carolina basketball reappeared on Saturday. Now we can only hope it doesn’t disappear again.