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Tar Heel Hangover: Building confidence

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A couple of close wins provide a welcome contrast to last season. Can the team keep the trend going?

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

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

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

Since the start of the calendar year, the Heels have won three conference games by a total of nine points. This is a refreshing change for those who suffered through last season when it seemed like all of those games would have been heartbreaking losses. College basketball is an amazing game as literally a single shot per game during a stretch of games makes a season a success or a disaster. Making winning plays is a skill that this group is quickly learning.

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

Amid all of the great things that have happened over the last few games, there continues to be a single glaring issue; the original starting backcourt is in a shooting slump. The front court is incredibly impressive. As a fan, I look forward to whomever is coming in to the game because each of Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot, Day’Ron Sharpe, and Walker Kessler bring something different and fun to the court. They each have a ton of energy and can wreak havoc against opposing teams.

Caleb Love and R.J. Davis, however, have not had such a promising start. This is in no way an indictment on their talents or the value that both are surely to bring to the team over the next several seasons. The Heels are going to win a lot of games thanks to these two. Right now, however, their best contribution is to get open shots for others.

On the season, Love is shooting 27% from the field and only 18% from beyond the arc. He has attempted over 18% of the team’s field goals. With such a tremendous offensive rebounding team generating a second, and third (and once against Syracuse, seven) additional chances on the interior, Love’s attempt percentage as a first shot is extraordinarily high.

Davis is better by comparison, but certainly not setting the world on fire. He currently sits at 33% from the field and 29% from three. Through 12 games, the original starting backcourt has missed 75 three-pointers combined. The rest of the team has missed 72. This is certainly a slump, but the dominant bigs for Carolina should allow cold-shooting guards to patiently work their way back into rhythm.

This is why Kerwin Walton’s game against Syracuse was so impressive. As a consistent perimeter scorer, Walton garnered a lot of attention from the Orange. Instead of jacking up bad shots and hoping for offensive rebounds, however, he took his game inside the arc and showed off the midrange. Adapting his personal game to fit the flow is precisely the model that others should follow.

Davis and Love have to keep shooting to keep defenses honest; they just don’t have to do it as much.

Key stat for the week.

I have spent a lot of time this season looking at the combination of free throws and turnovers. Teams do not turn the ball over a lot against the Orange zone, so the latter number is less meaningful. What was critical on Tuesday were attempts from the charity stripe.

Cumulatively, the team is only shooting 68% from the line. That number has been going up recently. 71% against Notre Dame. 73% against Miami. 78% against Syracuse. While field goal percentage is not increasing, at least the free throws are going in on a more consistent basis and that is a sign of improvement.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

Carolina travels to Tallahassee on Saturday to take on the Seminoles. Florida State is very good and will bring a physical presence to the court. The Heels must come out with an aggressive attitude and be ready to assert their will on the interior. This will not be an easy game, but it is precisely the kind of contest that could prove meaningful on Selection Sunday.

And while we are contemplating what March will look like, consider a few facts about the “bubble dwelling” Tar Heels. They are 8-4 on the season. They lost by two points on a neutral court to the current number 4 ranked Texas on a step back jumper. They lost by 13 on the road against current fifth ranked Iowa. They lost by three at NC State and by five at Georgia Tech, both teams currently with six wins. They have only played four of their 12 games at home.

By comparison, consider a team that has a record of 5-3. Their three conference wins are against opponents with a combined 1-13 record in the league. Amazingly, each of the five opponents they defeated have only three wins. They have only played two games away from home (with four additional home games having been cancelled or postponed).

Only one of these teams should be sounding the post-season warning alarm, and it is not Carolina.

Final Thoughts

A conference win streak is always a good thing. Winning on the road against Florida State on Saturday will be a challenge but could prove that this team is on the right track.

Stay safe and Go Heels!