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UNC Basketball: Getting hot at the right time

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Hey, look at us. Who would’ve thought? Not me.

Wake Forest v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

We’ve seen this story time and time again from Roy Williams teams — UNC being able to take down a good majority of the competition throughout the regular season, and in March players find a way to unlock their full potential just before tournament time. However, it’s safe to say that this scenario wasn’t expected to play out quite as well as it has in previous years, as the 2019-20 Tar Heels have had one of the worst seasons in school history. There were plenty of reasons to feel like this team wouldn’t get hot, and yet much like last year and many years prior, the Heels figured out a way to make it happen.

The Tar Heels are currently on a three-game win streak going into their game against Duke. NC State, Syracuse, and Wake Forest faced a team with a hungry, unrelenting, nothing-to-lose mentality that will make them one of the most dangerous teams next weekend in Greensboro. Think about it: This is the team that took Duke to overtime, put up a strong fight against Florida State, and was a dadgum buzzer-beater away from taking down Virginia. That accounts for three of the four teams that are currently projected to earn a double-bye, and while there are no consolation prizes in college basketball, one has to wonder what would’ve happened if these three teams faced this version of the Heels during the season. Thankfully Duke will likely get that experience this Saturday.

Undoubtedly part of what has doomed Carolina from playing consistent basketball has been injuries. Even right now we don't know if Armando Bacot will be set to suit up for Duke after suffering an injury during the game against Syracuse. However, the other factor in how this season has went has been overall team performance, and things have heated up in that department significantly over the last couple of weeks. How significantly? Let’s take a look at some of the key players and compare their numbers in the games won compared to their overall season numbers:

Cole Anthony

Season average:
20.2 ppg, 39.2 FG, 36% 3PT, 5.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 3.4 turnovers, 76% FT shooting

During the three-game win streak:
24 ppg, 58% FG, 60% 3PT, 3.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 2.6 turnovers, 77% FT shooting

Garrison Brooks

Season average:
16.4 ppg, 54.4% FG, 8.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.2 turnovers, 62% FT shooting

During the three-game win streak:
27 ppg, 63% FG, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 turnovers, 82% FT shooting

Leaky Black

Season Average:
6.3 ppg, 35% FG, 25.5% 3PT, 5.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.8 turnovers, 68.3% FT shooting

During the three-game win streak:
8.3 ppg, 39% FG, 0% 3PT, 5.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2 turnovers, 60% FT shooting

Brandon Robinson

Season Average:
12 ppg, 40.5% FG, 34.9% 3PT, 3.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.6 turnovers, 81% FT shooting

During the three-game win streak:
9 ppg, 39.1% FG, 38.8% 3PT, 3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.6 turnovers, 66% FT shooting

Christian Keeling

Season Average:
6.9 ppg, 45.2% FG, 33.3% 3PT, 2.7 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 1.2 turnovers, 73.3% FT shooting

During the three-game win streak:
14.3 ppg, 60% FG, 55% 3PT, 3.6 rebounds, 1 assist, 0 turnovers, 80% FT shooting

As we can see, some of the improvement from an individual perspective has been substantial over the last three games. Cole Anthony, Garrison Brooks, and Christian Keeling have been shooting well over 50% from the field, and both Anthony and Keeling are shooting 60% and 55% respectively from three-point range. It’s hard to fathom these kinds of numbers even during a normal Carolina basketball season for any stretch of games, but it’s especially surprising when it’s happening at the tail end of a historically bad season.

Perhaps the most amusing thing in all of this is how loud fans/media got about Cole Anthony’s struggles when he returned. I’d be lying to say that I wasn’t one of them myself, but what he’s shown over the last three games has proven that he is going to make a really good NBA player for whoever picks him up in the draft. He’s seeing the court much better, playing with a lot more patience, taking fewer bad shots, and yet has remained very aggressive. Spacing is a topic that gets talked about ad nauseam when it comes to how college players will fit in the NBA, but I truly believe the spacing at the next level will make Anthony a huge problem at the next level. It’s been really fun to see him mature right before our own eyes, and it’ll be even sweeter if he can help the Heels get a big win this Saturday.

Cole Anthony aside, it can’t be understated how different some of these games would've been if it weren’t for upperclassmen Garrison Brooks and Christian Keeling. Brooks found some way to take his game to an even higher level as of late, and we’re seeing the kind of performances that will make it hard to leave him off of anybody’s All-ACC ballot. As for Keeling, his season has done a complete 180 ever since the Florida State game. He finally looks comfortable in Roy Williams’ system, and his mid-range shooting has helped him see a bigger rim when taking shots from three. It probably goes without saying, but Keeling returning to form is arguably the biggest factor in how this team has been able to compete down the stretch.

While UNC has found their stride, things unfortunately are in do-or-die mode from here. Duke game aside, the Heels will have to win five games in the ACC Tournament if they want to make the NCAA Tournament. If there were ever a sub-.500 ACC team that could pull it off, it’s going to be the 2019-20 North Carolina Tar Heels. However, it can’t be understated how monumental of a task it is to pull off, and we all know anything could happen between now and Tuesday. Let’s pray that this resurgence is enough to get the job done, but if not there’s one thing that we can’t deny when this season is over: this is a team full of fighters, and I don’t know that we’ll ever see a team with this level of toughness ever again in the Roy Williams era. Needless to say, I really hope I’m wrong.