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UNC Basketball: What month is it again?

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The calendar may read January 22, but in terms of actual basketball played, it’s a lot earlier.

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

Brendan Marks for the Athletic is a great person to have on the UNC basketball beat. With his experience and skill it’s a great voice to add to reporting that has started to become pretty homogenized with media consolidation. He’s written a great feature that ran on Monday on Obama’s singular link to the Tar Heels as well as a wonderful break down on how Caleb Love was the player we finally hoped we were getting after Wake Forest. As a subscriber it’s been worth reading.

Which of course made it maddening when this popped up on my Twitter feed last night:

Now, this isn’t a knock on Brendan. He’s voicing something a lot of fans are thinking because naturally we look at the calendar, we see late January, and we have this expectation as to how a Carolina team should be functioning by now. At the same time, It smacked right up against something I’ve been saying over and over to people who’ll listen. It’s resulted in more than a few “Sir, this is a Bojangles” answers from the drive-thru window.

Prior to the Orange Bowl game I even had a thread of my own:

Look at the date of the tweet, and then the date of when game ten was for the Tar Heels. The point of that thread wasn’t to compare this team to last year, because much like the rest of 2020 that team was such a dumpster fire comparisons are impossible. What is possible, though, is to look at the actual schedule and constantly remind yourself just how different this year is compared to a “normal” year, and how that is going to affect the team you see on the court.

I decided that a better comparison might be to take a look at a few other years where the team had a massive turnover of talent, count the games — including exhibitions because that was live action where Roy Williams could play with the lineups — and see where they were on the calendar compared to this year. It’s also helpful to see the opponents played versus what Carolina has had this season.

For this exercise, let’s take a look at the following years:

2006-07: Year two of Tyler Hansbrough, and freshman year of Ty Lawson plus Wayne Ellington, with Danny Green starting to play more minutes.

2010-11: Freshmen Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock, and Kendall Marshall join, among others, sophomore John Henson and junior Tyler Zeller. It famously had the starting point guard switch from Larry Drew to Marshall as ACC season started.

2012-13: Freshmen Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson try to integrate themselves with experienced players Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, and PJ Hairston.

You see the theme? Years where Carolina had some good experience on the floor but had to bring in a point guard as a freshman. These were also teams that had cores that would make deep NCAA runs pretty quick, and two of these years still ended with an Elite 8. The 2013 season, of course, ended in the round of 32.

So, for those keeping track, Carolina played game number fourteen on Wednesday night against Wake Forest. For this, we are going to look at each team’s fourteenth game, what their win/loss record was, and all of their opponents to date.

2006-2007

Game 14 (including two exhibitions): 12/28 vs. Rutgers.

Record after 14 games (including two exhibitions): 13-1

Opponents: St. Augustine’s (exh), Pfeiffer (exh), Sacred Heart (Charlotte), Winthrop (Charlotte), Gardner-Webb, Gonzaga (L, NYC), Tennessee (NYC), Ohio State, Kentucky, High Point, UNC-Asheville, Florida-Atlantic, St. Louis (road), Rutgers.

Games Played by 1/20: 21

The days when you could have two exhibition games! Man, that 13-1 record looks great doesn’t it? Yet, look at the opponents. Carolina played two exhibitions, and then eight games against teams that are basically schedule filler. They did start away from Chapel Hill, but then they had a run where they had five games in a row in the Smith Center. From November 29th to December 19th, the team did not have to leave home, at all. Of the “good” opponents, Gonzaga was 23rd ranked and beat the Tar Heels, and while the Buckeyes were ranked third in the country, this was pre-Calipari Kentucky, and they came into the game unranked.

This Carolina team would go on to finish 33-7, including a 11-5 mark in conference. They would win the ACC Tournament, however, and came within a whisper of the Final Four, coming together as a team as the season went on.

2010-2011

Game 14 (including one exhibition): 12/28 vs Rutgers in NYC

Record after 14 games (including one exhibition): 10-4

Opponents: Barton (exh), Lipscomb, Hofstra (San Juan), Minnesota (L, San Juan), Vanderbilt (L, San Juan), UNC-Asheville, College of Charleston, Illinois (L, road), Kentucky, Evansville (road), Long Beach State, Texas (L), William & Mary, Rutgers (NYC)

Games played by 1/20: 19

We all remember this season as the emergence of Kendall Marshall, but, I have a surprise for you...he still wasn’t starting by this point. Now, the minutes had started to split by now, as Drew played 20 minutes in this game and Marshall played 18. Drew would, in fact, start four more games for the Tar Heels after this one, as they looked lackluster in their first three conference games before getting drubbed by Georgia Tech in Drew’s final start. Marshall would take over the starting role against Clemson on January 18th.

Once again, the team was working to find itself and had a wide range of teams for Roy Williams to figure out what he had. In a lot of ways, this season is the most comparable to our current one, as that 2011 team was coming off Roy’s worst to date in Chapel Hill, and had an infusion of recruited talent coming in to that team to help take the next steps. As you can see, the signs of the team struggling under Drew had just begun to show, but they needed a few more games to see that the answer was coming off the bench the whole time. Note that the Tar Heels had games, that counted, against Lipscomb, Hofstra, UNC-A, Evansville, and William & Mary. Again, pay games that allowed the coach to play around with the lineups and see his new freshman point guard in action.

The Tar Heels would get nine games under their belt once Drew left the team before the postseason began, and that momentum kept going to the NCAA Tournament as they would get to the Elite 8.

2012-2013

Game 14 (including one exhibition): 12/29 vs. UNLV

Record after 14 games (including one exhibition): 11-3

Opponents: Shaw (exh), Gardner-Webb, Florida-Atlantic, Long Beach State (Road), Mississippi State (Maui), Butler (L, Maui), Chaminade (Maui), Indiana (L, Road), UAB, East Tennessee State, ECU, Texas (L, Road), McNeese State, UNLV.

Games played by 1/20: 18

This is also a good one to look at when you compare to this season, as Kendall Marshall left for the NBA, a move everyone understood as he suffered the wrist injury the year prior and his stock had never been higher. Thus, a freshman Marcus Paige, who had ideally been someone who would come in to spell Marshall, had to shoulder the load as a starter. Without a real backup the team had some ups and downs, but they also had a lot of games to get Paige comfortable in the role. Shaw, Gardner-Webb, Florida Atlantic, Long Beach State, UAB, East Tennessee State, ECU, and McNeese State are all games the Tar Heels were expected to win the moment they stepped on the court. Note their actual tests didn’t go well, as they lost to Butler, Indiana, and Texas.

The rockiness would continue, as their very next game after UNLV was the start of the ACC season, which began 0-2 with losses to UVA and Miami. They would go on to finish 12-6 in the conference, made it to the title game of the ACC Tournament, but “somehow” was an eight seed in the bracket where Kansas was number one, playing in Kansas City. The final starting lineup: Paige, Bullock, Hariston, Dexter Strickland, and James Michael McAdoo. That loss meant their final record was 26-11.

By now you should have noticed a few trends, but in case you haven’t, let me sum them up:

  • In all these seasons the Tar Heels hadn’t even started conference play by the time they hit game 14. This season, they not only have hit ACC play, they are seven games into it. We all know conference play is a different level, as the coaches and players have you scouted, see you on a regular basis, and even the worst teams aren’t a guaranteed gimme.
  • In all these seasons, UNC had several games against easily inferior opponents that allowed Roy Williams to stretch his bench and get a better idea of who was working and who was going to need more time to practice before he could be rightly counted on.
  • Forget the lack of crowds, in each season Carolina had long stretches during the fourteen where they didn’t have to leave Chapel Hill. In the ‘06 season they stayed in town for almost a month, in the ‘11 season half of their games had been at home, and three more were in the same location, and in the ‘13 season Carolina started at home for three games, including the exhibition, and had a four-game run in Chapel Hill. That matters in terms of comfort and routine. So far, Carolina has play six home games, but no more than two in a row

This is all just comparing apples to apples, in the sense of outright comparing the schedule to other schedules. The thing is, we all know there’s a big reason why Carolina has only played 14 games: COVID-19. The COVID protocols affected how the team could practice, wiped out an exhibition and any sort of Late Night celebration, and has wrecked havoc with the schedule even as it was announced. Of the fourteen games Carolina has played, half have either had their date, time, or opponent changed right before the actual event happened.

All of this uncertainty affects how the team competes and grows when you have two freshmen point guards trying to get to know their teammates. Most folks wouldn’t think twice if it took until Late December for a freshman like Caleb Love to have his best game, and honestly it would have occurred earlier in normal times as there would have been more teams like College of Charleston scheduled.

Do the Tar Heels have problems? Of course they do, but as you can see, all of these teams that had what could be considered very successful seasons in light of circumstances had problems. What fixed those problems? GAMES! The more they would play, the more they would improve, the more they would get on tape, the more they would learn, and the tighter they would get as a team. It’s why you’re seeing teams like Kentucky and Duke struggle as well, and why teams like Virginia, Florida State, and Gonzaga are doing so well. It’s not just that they have talent, but their growing pains are behind them to a large extent, and as a team they’ve bonded.

See that in the loss to Kansas in 2013? Roy was effectively playing a four-guard lineup to start? It was only after playing well over 30 games that he knew that was going to give him his best chance to win. After fourteen games, he was still starting Larry Drew in 2010, and in 2006 he was making sure Ty Lawson had a lot of easier opponents to get a feel for playing with the talent already on the floor.

All of this is to say: this season needs to be viewed in a different prism. This team is going through its normal struggles of any Roy team with a big infusion of talent, especially at the point guard position. If they were doing this in late December before a single ACC game was played, fans wouldn’t be as freaked out. Instead, the calendar says January 22nd, and we are expecting to see a team on the floor that has played close to 20 games by now. Not to mention, a team that had played every game that was scheduled, had gone through a regular offseason, had an exhibition or two, and didn’t have to deal with COVID internally or externally.

The level of improvement from this team shows that it’s still following a normal path, albeit at different times. It’s completely possible that this season will see a similar end as the 13 season with an early NCAA exit, assuming the tournament happens, but with a six person class and maybe two looking like they could actually make the one and done jump to the NCAA, how much they play together now should start the team on a familiar arc of those other squads.

We just may not realize it until 2022.