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Tar Heel Hangover: One week to go

As the regular season draws to a close, the UNC Men’s Basketball team is finally hitting its stride.

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our opportunity to review last week’s games, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

Two games and two wins. In a typical year, that would be a very common statement but as all Carolina fans know, this is not a typical year. It is the first time since the Bahamas that the Heels earned two victories in the same week. It is also the most consecutive halves scoring 40+ points (4) this year. This team even averaged 88.5 points per game for the week, which is incredible given the shooting woes on the season.

If only this had happened two months ago.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

The Heels are faced with a unique challenge at this point; for the first time, they have to keep the positive momentum going.

Although defense can win a lot of games, this Carolina team has been missing consistent offense. They found it last week. Against NC State, Carolina shot over 49% from the field. On Saturday, they made nearly 52% of their attempts from the floor. The question becomes, what has clicked and can it be maintained?

First, Christian Keeling seems to have found his shot. After being mired in a season long shooting slump and frequently looking out of place on the floor, Keeling made a concerted effort in February to focus on his mid-game. Beginning with the Florida State game, Keeling has been in double figures in 6 of the last 8 with the only two single digit games being 9 points each. He has recently successfully converted to longer range going 2-4 from three in each of the last three games. That is very impressive for a guy that was 9-35 on the season from beyond the arc entering the Louisville game.

Second, Cole Anthony is shooting better. Despite a ton of talent, Anthony has been streaky at best for much of the year. On the season, he is under 40% from the field and under 35% from deep. This week marked the first time all season that Anthony was over 50% from the field and he did it in both games (58% versus NC State and 62% versus Syracuse). Anthony getting his 20 points per game on only 12 or 13 shots instead of 16 to 20 means more opportunities for others to contribute and more total points on the board.

Third, the free throw shooting has been great. Carolina has had a pretty rocky season from the charity stripe but last week was a huge step forward. An 88% effort (15-17) against the Orange followed a 71% conversion (22-31) against the Wolfpack. Those are fantastic numbers for a team shooting a mere 67% on the year.

These are great stats and show tremendous improvement, but a word of caution is needed here (as if such is necessary when discussing the last place team in the conference). Syracuse and NC State are not very good. State is clinging to the edge of the bubble and Syracuse is well outside. That is a bigger statement about the conference considering both teams are currently tied for 5th. Last week, I opined on the mediocrity of the ACC. Several readers noted disagreement in the comments and I appreciate those views. As I pointed out in the thread, since 2014, the ACC has gotten the following number of bids to the NCAA tournament: 2014 – 6, 2015 – 6, 2016 – 7, 2017 – 9, 2018 – 9, 2019 – 7 (including three 1 seeds). After this week, four teams are in as Virginia has now moved firmly into the field. NC State and new bubbler Clemson are hanging around, but without deep ACC Tournament runs, both will be out. Also, the ACC has had at least one number 1 seed every year this century except 2003 and 2013. Saturday’s results virtually eliminated any chance at a number 1 seed this year. Perhaps it is parity, but the bids are proof of the conference’s success and this year the volume is just not there.

Final Thoughts

I wrote last week that ”this is the best 10-17 team in the country. In fact, they are probably the 4th or 5th best team in the conference all things being equal.” The Heels went out and proved my point by beating the 5th and 6th place teams in the league. They are now the best 12-17 team in the country.

They need another good week to keep the positive momentum going ahead of a wide open ACC Tournament. It is amazing how thirsty Carolina fans are for a sip of hope in this dark season. They now have it. Just in time for Duke.