After taking down three mediocre ACC teams, the North Carolina Tar Heels hit a brick wall last night in the form of the Duke Blue Devils. Duke came out firing on all cylinders, played suffocating defense, and ran the floor perhaps the best I’ve seen them run it all season. The regular season sweep is one that funny enough would hurt more if the Heels hadn’t dug such a massive hole throughout the rest of the season after suffering injury after injury, but it’s one that hurts nonetheless. At the end of the day, excuses don’t change results, and credit has to go to that team in Durham for playing much better than they did in round one.
There’s a lot to unpack from this game, but I must make a disclaimer: if you’re looking for a rant about how bad the officiating was, you may want to close this window. Though to appease those looking for that kind of thing, I’d like to offer up this tweet from The Athletics’ Brendan Marks that sums up all of my feelings about the issue:
Cole Anthony literally slapped Tre Jones' arm trying to foul and it didn't get called— Brendan Marks (@BrendanRMarks) March 8, 2020
Let’s dive into three (other) things we learned about this game.
Learning to walk the walk
Prior to the game, Cole Anthony was very vocal about his confidence going into the game against Duke. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this happening, and quite frankly we all know what kind of jawing takes place on the basketball court when the game is underway. That said, Anthony saying that he was looking forward to winning in Cameron and that they were a dangerous last place team to face in the tournament wasn’t the “wrong” thing to say. However, if you’re willing to say these things to media, you better be prepared to be bulletin board material, and you better be prepared for the fight of your life. Was he prepared? I’ll leave that for readers to decide, but what we do know is that he struggled mightily against Duke.
Cole Anthony finished the game with 9 points, going 4-14 from the field and only taking two free throw attempts. He also had just three assists and two rebounds, and had a lot of difficulty containing Tre Jones. How much difficulty? 21 points and 11 assists worth of difficulty. We can surely credit some of Jones’ success to the amount of free throws he attempted, but the fact of the matter is that Anthony’s performance was the most lackluster performance that he’s had since the game against Elon all the way back in November.
Talking the talk is perfectly fine in the sport of basketball. However, if you don’t walk the walk, particularly against your most hated rival in a game that would’ve helped your team sneak out of last place, suddenly those words become more cringeworthy than anything. Unfortunately to a degree Joel Berry is familiar with this concept.
The Tale of Two Duke Teams
As easy as it is to point at the things that UNC had control over, one thing about this game that was completely out of their control was the version of Duke that showed up to Cameron Indoor Stadium. In the first game the Tar Heels played a team that perhaps didn’t take them serious enough and got pummeled for most of the game. Last night, however, a team showed up that was hungry and wanted to make a statement, even if it was at the expense of their last place rival in the ACC.
There were two things about Duke last night that made them especially dangerous compared to last time: fast break points and Justin Robinson. In regards to fast break points, the Blue Devils got out in transition much better than they have in recent games. They scored 19 points on the fast break compared to 5 points by UNC, with the Heels not running nearly as hard as the Blue Devils when going down either side of the court.
Senior forward Justin Robinson also had himself quite the senior night, finishing the game with 13 points and 6 rebounds. Robinson has become an unexpected X-factor for Duke following their win against NC State, and one has to imagine that he will continue to get an adequate amount of minutes in the postseason. Again, the amount of free throws that Duke was allowed to take surely was a factor, but it’s hard to ignore these two elements of what they were able to do and how it impacted the game.
Those close games last month mattered in the end
It goes without saying that every single win that a team is able to obtain in the ACC is extremely important, but it’s also very difficult to achieve. For the Tar Heels, the latter was very true for a large portion of the regular season, as they finished with a 6-14 conference record. We knew going into the game against Duke that climbing out of last place was going to be extremely tough, but what we didn’t know was that so many teams were going to give them the help they needed to climb out of the hole.
Wake Forest and Pitt finished the regular season with the same record as the Tar Heels. The unfortunate part of this is that both teams beat the Heels at least once, with Pitt sweeping the series. Considering that things ended the way they did, the losses that UNC suffered by the hands of Boston College, Duke, Virginia, and Notre Dame are now somehow worse than they were at the time they happened. Why these losses? Because these were the games that UNC lost by buzzer-beaters (or in the case of Boston College, free throws).
To think that if the final shot in one of those games was off by an inch or two that UNC would have escaped finishing in last place is the perfect representation of how this season played out. Everything that could go wrong for Roy Williams and his players did indeed go wrong, and it’s been a long, frustrating season to endure. Yes, players and coaches did not perform up to par with what is expected from a Carolina basketball program, but it’s also hard to ignore some of the extracurricular elements that contributed to the product on the court.
Regardless of the how and/or why, we’re now in foreign territory: UNC’s season could end as soon as Tuesday in the ACC Tournament against VIrginia Tech. Does this team have enough toughness left in their tank to somehow do the improbable and win the tournament title? We’ll find out the answer to that very, very soon.