UNC, after a rocky start to the season, is quietly one of the hottest teams in the ACC right now. In their past six games, the Heels have gone 5-1, with their only loss a tight road contest with surging Florida State. That’s the second-best mark in that span in the conference, tied with the Noles and second to 6-0 Virginia. Carolina is playing noticeably better basketball than they were at the beginning of the season, as one usually expects from a Roy Williams team at about this time (shout-out to Al for this timely reminder about time), but that’s still impressive given what we’re seeing from a lot of other traditionally very good teams this year, in this weirdest of seasons (Duke, if anything, might be getting worse!). On the back of a pretty impressive win against N.C. State, the Heels now get to travel to see Pittsburgh, who haven’t been phenomenal but have a player, in Justin Champagnie, who absolutely is. Here are some things to look out for:
Containing a Star
Justin Champagnie has been simply absurd this season for Jeff Capel’s team. He leads the ACC in points per game with 19.9 and in rebounds per game with 12.4, and that still somehow feels low for the kind of damage he’s liable to do every time he’s on the court. The 6’6, 200-pound sophomore has scored 24 or more points in 3 of Pitt’s 9 games and hasn’t really had a bad game all season, his closest being 10 points and 9 boards against Miami in 24 minutes, easily a season low for him. He’s a threat to score from every level, tenacious on the boards, and isn’t a black hole on offense, either, averaging close to 2 assists per game as a wing. And he’s a menace on defense, too, averaging about 1.5 steals and blocks each per game. In short, he plays all over the floor and affects just about every aspect of the game. UNC’s primary, secondary, and possibly tertiary goal should be not letting him take over the game, as some other stars they’ve faced this season (M.J. Walker, hello) have. The rest of Pittsburgh’s squad isn’t chopped liver or anything, but I don’t think this is an Iowa situation, either, where the team had players who could kill the Heels if Luka Garza were contained. Their other leading scorers, both guards, are good, but have been less consistent than Champagnie and look vulnerable to decent defense. A few times this season, Roy Williams has resorted to having Leaky Black face-guard an opposing wing who’s going off against them, to mixed results: it worked against FSU, not so much against Wake Forest. If Black draws the Champagnie assignment, which I expect he will, that will probably be a major component of tomorrow’s game.
Guard Play and Rotations
It would seem that Roy Williams has a good problem on his hands: he’s seeing the youth on his team grow up and play better basketball, making a case for playing around with the safe rotations that have gotten the team this far, while also reaching the time where he tries to tighten his rotation for the home stretch of ACC play and whatever postseason there will be this year. He’s been loath to put Caleb Love and R.J Davis on the floor at the same time during UNC’s hot streak, because they hadn’t really been handling trying to learn the on-ball and off-ball responsibilities of the secondary break, but lately they’ve looked like they’re figuring the UNC system out, making an argument for more appearances by the backcourt that started a bunch of games to start the season. At the same time, Kerwin Walton’s shooting prowess has probably entrenched him into the starting lineup for now, and he’s been much more than a shooter lately, with a couple of well-timed drives and his knowledge of where to get the ball to continue offense, even if he’s not much of a playmaker. Anthony Harris is back in the rotation, even if he isn’t going to be playing more than 15 or so minutes a game for a bit, and he’s added an instant spark in 2 of the three games he’s played. Andrew Platek’s minutes have gone down in ACC play, but he still offers a defensive spark against non-elite opponents and makes the occasional winning play. Williams, I think, is staring at an entirely different guard rotation than he was even 3 weeks ago, and it will be interesting to see if he is willing to play around with it now that he has the option, say, to play two point guards at once, or to play three freshmen without much drop-off.
Back on the Road
It’s a little astounding that home-court advantage has stayed as strong as it has this season. You’d expect it a little bit, given that one team has had to travel (even more stressful than usual this season) and stay in hotels, while one team has been able to stay home, but even minus fans, home teams are winning this season close to 60% of the time. UNC hasn’t been immune; out of 5 games they’ve played on the road, they’re just 2-3. They just closed out a two-game homestand, which is as good as they’ll get the rest of the season, and are now headed on a 3-game road trip through Pittsburgh, Death Valley, and Durham. It makes sense to lay this as the feet of youth, as we’ve tended to do for most things about this UNC season: learning how to travel and the various rigors of a college schedule are part of transitioning from high school to adulthood, if you’re a scholarship athlete. We saw the light start to come on for Love on the road against Florida State, at least as a scorer, before he broke out for real against Wake Forest back home. The same could be true of his freshman classmates, and generally about this team adjusting to a year where air travel is a uniquely terrifying experience. Whatever the reason, we know how much Roy Williams likes winning on the road. Extending this hot streak to a tough road game would be a great way to really know this season is turning around for the Heels.