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UNC 53, Syracuse 81: Three Things Learned

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A sadly fitting end to this season.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Tournament-Syracuse vs North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to be completely honest, yesterday was so bonkers that it was very hard to care the usual amount about a 9:30 PM UNC Basketball game. It seemed like yesterday was the day the COVID-19 bubble burst all over the sports world, with several college basketball postseasons announcing that fans wouldn’t be allowed in, universities cancelling all gatherings of more than 50 people, and, of course, the NBA being cancelled indefinitely after a player tested positive for the virus.

With very little preparation at the federal and state levels, the US is currently very closely following Italy’s epidemic exponential growth curve, and Italy’s mortality rate has been clocked as high as 6%. I’m begging you all, wash your hands with soap, stay adequately socially isolated, and be mindful of your immunocompromised peers: the very young, the very old, people with autoimmune diseases or people on immunosuppressants.

But, back to the point: UNC’s basketball season is over, as might be the college basketball season. Here are three things we learned from this game to carry over into next year:

1. We’ve been underestimating how much Roy Williams needs shooters

Over the past several years, as the analytics revolution has hit the NBA and then college basketball, Roy Williams has been noted for his stubbornness in adapting to it: His teams haven’t taken substantially more threes than they used to, the defensive philosophy is one that would rather contest lots of threes than deny three-point attempts, and his ideal offense centers around post entries and rebounding threats.

The Justin Jacksons and Cam Johnsons, who were threats to just pull up out of that structure, felt like luxuries to Roy’s offensive system, people who could take it over the top, rather than cogs in its Platonic ideal. But consider this: Last year, the Heels had shooting threats, or at least perceived shooting threats with shot gravity, just about everywhere you looked. Coby White, Johnson, Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, and Brandon Robinson all required a hand in their face on the perimeter, even if Williams and Maye didn’t have great shooting seasons.

The Heels ranked 250th in the country in 3-point attempted rate, but that space opened up the offense. This year, all of that was gone. Only one of UNC’s wings, Robinson, was treated like a credible three-point threat, and that meant either the Heels would make them pay from beyond the arc or just have their offense completely stifled.

On Tuesday, it was the former, as the Heels put up an absolute offensive barrage. On Wednesday, a 2/16 shooting night from distance, it was very much the latter. Players like Andrew Platek and Leaky Black were repeatedly gifted open shots and turned them down so they could dribble right into the teeth of the Syracuse zone. Garrison Brooks just had one of the best big man ACC seasons we’ve seen in Chapel Hill, but because this team couldn’t function around him without the space that shooting gives you, it was pointless.

Roy’s offense resists modernity in a lot of ways, for better and for worse. But this year was an example of exactly why it’s not immune to the concept of spacing that’s become such a buzzword in NBA circles, or, more bluntly, an example of what bad-faith detractors have been saying about his system for years. This is what an offense where the only options are big-man post-ups and trying to overpower college basketball with talent gets you, not what we usually see in the Dean Dome. Fortunately, this looks like it’ll be a one-off problem. But it’s a counterexample that proves the value of the perimeter to UNC’s teams.

2. We never really figured out this team’s mental makeup

If COVID doesn’t ensure that this season gets relegated to the footnotes of college basketball history, this will be remembered as a Frankenstein’s monster of a UNC team: 2 graduate transfers and 2 freshmen expected to play starters’ minutes right away, a defensive stalwart asked to play a huge offensive role, an erstwhile role player thrust into offensive weapon responsibilities, and a bunch more pieces that hadn’t figured out what they were, let alone how they fit together.

That’s a tough coaching job on its own; to accelerate all those relationships, figure out complementary skillsets, course-correct for players not living up to their practice play (Platek and Christian Keeling are prominent here), and find your leaders on a team that’s entirely new to leading other men. Throw in possibly the worst injury luck in college basketball, and coaching this team to success is essentially Herculean. But I think it would have been possible, and that Roy Williams would have done it, if we could just have gotten a handle on how this team was going to react to... well, anything.

We went from bemoaning how they seemed to turtle up and just watch Cole Anthony work to understanding their discombobulation at having lost their floor leader to (somehow) thinking maybe they’d figured out how to play without a ball-dominant point guard and should just play with a talent handicap the rest of the season back to the first point, then starting to see the amount of fight this team had just to be playing as hard as they were through the injuries and buzzer-beaters, to thinking they’d figured each other out by the end of the season, and then got to Tuesday, where they just seemed to get taken out early by a couple of wayward whistles. That wasn’t the team we’d grown to expect over the last week; or at all this season.

Just another emotional data point on this Jackson Pollock of a season. This group was going to be tough to gel together as it was, and the interruptions of injury made it just about impossible. Yesterday was a reminder that cohesion can’t be finalized that quickly. It was the kind of game a UNC team should have in January, but this team was still trying to define itself all the way until the end.

3. Some Perspective

This is college basketball. With very rare exceptions (Erick Greene comes to mind), players, especially guards, are defined by the teams they play for, and that has meant that Cole Anthony has gotten a ton of undue (and some due) slander from a demanding UNC fanbase: peaking with people questioning if the team was better off without him after wins against 6-man Miami and NC State.

And it’s a shame, because while he’s far from perfect, he has been absolutely electric, and watching his craft has been probably the only really fun thing about this season - And if you’re forming a reply that Brooks, not Anthony, was the fun one to watch, you’re lying. I love Brooks and have loved watching him grow into a tough, space-demanding big man, but his game isn’t fun. On the other hand, we might not see stuff like this again for a while in Chapel Hill:

I think we all want to fire this season into the sun and move on like it didn’t happen. But if you’re the type to want to take some good memories from everything, Anthony providing us with some sparks in a lifeless season should be at the top of that list. We’re all basketball fans here, and at his best, he showed us what basketball could look like when we were close to forgetting.