The UNC basketball world returned to some sort of normalcy with yesterday’s victory over NC State. The Heels improved to 5-3 in conference play and have won five of their last six games. The Wolfpack fell to 2-4 in the ACC and have now lost four in a row. It was UNC’s 33rd victory over State since Roy Williams returned.
But, other than those fun numbers, what else did we learn?
State’s Success in the Paint
First some not-so-good news. I wanted to avoid this, but kept coming back to it as I digested what we watched. Armando Bacot and Day’Ron Sharpe were dominant, combining for 33 points and 18 rebounds. They were a deadly 1-2 punch, going a combined 16-25 from the floor for an impressive 64%. State, despite Manny Bates’ seven blocks, had no answers. That duo were a primary reason the Heels produced 48 points in the paint. That’s the second highest output for the Heels this season, only trailing the 52 points they scored in the first contest.
However, the Wolfpack almost equaled that total with 40 paint points of their own. This may not seem like a big deal, but last year, UNC only allowed 40+ points in the paint on four occasions. (And, uh, last year’s team was woefully thin in the frontcourt). It was the first time this season that mark had been eclipsed.
In fact, it was the third time in four games against State that UNC has allowed 40 or more points in the paint, and the fifth time in the last seven. Over the last seven contests (dating back to Kevin Keatts’ second second), State hasn’t scored less than 36 points in the paint. Some of that is from fast breaks off turnovers, and some of it is from dribble penetration. There’s plenty of blame to go around.
We addressed UNC’s struggles with interior defense after the win over Florida State, so this is not to beat that dead horse. It’s just to point out that N.C. State’s style serves a specific kind of problem for UNC that no other ACC opponent has consistently exploited.
As addressed above, Bacot and Sharpe dominated the paint. They set the tone early and finished late. That is the kind of offense fans have been waiting to see. As Al pointed out yesterday, our timelines may be a little skewed with COVID-related obstacles, and this team has shown signs of improvement.
Regardless of the how and whys, yesterday showed us what an inside-outside style of play should look like — especially with this roster’s talents. The energy and efficiency down low opened up the rest of the court. The rest of the team went 17-32 from inside the arc for a 53% success rate. That’s more than respectable considering most of those attempts came from the perimeter players. They also only went 4-11 from three (36%), which was their second fewest attempts on the season.
Three other Heels reached double digits (Caleb Love, R.J. Davis and Anthony Harris) and Kerwin Walton added eight points. They all used a steady mix of attacking the rim, finding space for mid-range jumpers, and a few well-timed three pointers. They were just efficient enough that the big men had room to operate.
In ACC play, UNC is now 49-143 from three. That 34.3% success rate is a huge improvement on nonconference play, where they were a woeful 25.5%, and is respectable enough that defenses aren’t packing the paint as often as they could early on. The guards don’t need to light it up from deep or relentlessly attack the rim. They just have to be more efficient. With a growing confidence and a little more experience, the perimeter is starting to complement the talent down low instead of holding it back. (At least on offense.)
Yesterday’s loss marks 18 seasons since NC State last swept the regular season series against UNC. Their last winning “streak” was from 2002-2003 when they won four in a row. Then Roy came to town and, well, we know that history. Truthfully, avoiding sweeps is not quite as rare a feat as I thought. Since Roy returned, five of their 14 ACC opponents have not swept a season series against the Heels. They are N.C. State, Clemson, Wake Forest, Syracuse, and Louisville.
However, because it’s State, there’s always more to the story. Not only have they failed to sweep a season series, State hasn’t even won consecutive games against UNC since 2003. That is a special type of futility for a team that some consider a rival. (Shout-out to the over-40 crowd!)
As you might imagine, that club is much more exclusive.
Of those five sweepless teams, three hold consecutive victories since Roy arrived. Clemson won consecutive games across the 2003 and 2004 season. While only one of those was technically against Roy, it is still more recent than State’s claim. Wake Forest grabbed two straight wins against UNC across the 2009 and 2010 season. Syracuse sneaks in on a technicality, winning games against UNC in 2009 and 2014 (their first year in the league).
That means the only two ACC teams to not own consecutive wins over UNC since Roy has been the head coach are NC State and Louisville. In an odd twist, the Cardinals have never won two in a row against the Heels, but they also only joined the ACC in 2014-2015. They have a few understandable excuses.
The Wolfpack do not.