After finally ending their losing streak against NC State, UNC built upon that and made it a win streak with a 92-79 win on the road at Syracuse.
In what’s been a season of uncomfortable leads, the Tar Heels bounced back from every punch they took and led by double digits for most of the second half. It was one of the most comprehensive performances they’ve had in a long time.
After a mostly positive effort, here’s what we learned in Carolina’s win over the Orange.
What could have been?
Admittedly, it is easier to bring up this point in the immediate aftermath of a solid win as opposed to, say, the Wake Forest game. However, it was hard not to wonder what could’ve been while watching this performance.
In it, you had Cole Anthony going for 25 points while shooting the lights out. He also finished with seven assists, three of which were on baskets Garrison Brooks scored. The other four were finished off by Christian Keeling. Having Anthony on the court at all, but especially doing well, opens up opportunities for those two and others, and yesterday they made Syracuse pay. If this was their 29th game with Anthony on the court instead of their 18th, a big chunk of which was him and the team having to get accustomed to him playing, things might’ve been different.
Speaking of Keeling, what if he had found his shot earlier? In his last eight games, he’s averaged over 13 points, after going for just four a game prior to that. Let’s say instead of that, his early season output was somewhere in the middle of 4 and 13, and he went for eight points a game. UNC’s final margin of defeat has been four or fewer points seven times. Yes, that’s not a very scientific way to look at it. To say all those results would’ve been different if he shot slightly better is making some big assumptions, but some of them would.
The flipside of that is that this team has also played some very dumb games (again, the Wake Forest one, others as well), and they just might’ve been doomed to be average from the start. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but it would’ve been nice to see what happened if they weren’t just a constant mess of injuries.
Garrison Brooks might be over his free throw yips
A big part of the frustrations during the losses has been the way this team has shot free throws. One of the main culprits of those struggles had been Brooks. After going 8-8 Saturday, he’s back up over 60% on the season.
He was great at the line in either of his first two seasons, but he was shooting 70% through the Georgia Tech game back on January 4th. It was the 12 games after that which really tanked his overall numbers, as he was making less than 40% of them in those games. Considering that he also shot 4-27 at home in that time, it seemed more of a mental/yips thing than him just being completely unable to make free throws.
Lo and behold, he’s now 22-24 in his last two games. This could look foolish if he starts to struggle again, but for now, things are looking up.
UNC owns the zone
Around the time Syracuse joined the ACC, as UNC was still in the process of building the team that went to the title game in 2016 and won it in 2017, there seemed to be a narrative that zone defenses gave the Tar Heels fits.
Well, Carolina has now won its last nine straight games against the Orange. After Saturday’s 92 points, they’ve scored over 80 in six of those games, and over 90 in three of them.
It’s also come in a variety of ways. In the past, they’ve used the bigs in a high-low game. They’ve had Theo Pinson go to the high post and carve it up. Yesterday, they just shot the lights out, going for 42% from three and 51% overall.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for a zone to get stops against this team occasionally, but it’s not an all-conquering strategy for stopping the Heels.