When I wrote the game recap for UNC’s game against NC State, I already started to get the feeling that Carolina basketball had returned in all its glory. Last night may have solidified that notion, as the Heels picked up their first Quadrant 1 win of the season against Pitt. It started to feel like it would never happen this season, but Roy Williams has managed to get through to his team just in time for them to make a strong push to earn an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament. I know, it’s that this is something that we have to still think about, but Carolina fans have lived pretty fortunate lives.
I digress, let’s go ahead and jump into the three things we learned from the game against the Panthers.
Playing with an Edge
One big reason that the Tar Heels won last night is something that does not show up on a stats sheet. Roy Williams found a way to turn what was a passive team for the first two months of the season into a team that has learned how to play aggressive basketball. More specifically, Carolina’s bigs — the group that we expected before the season started to dominate smaller, weaker teams — has finally figured out that they can get anything and everything they want in the paint.
I’ve been on the record of criticizing this team for not playing with the level of confidence that wins basketball games. It’s something that’s been talked about quite a bit all over, but now I think the Heels’ confidence is at a level that we haven’t seen since the 2018-19 season. Armando Bacot was finishing at the rim every chance he got, Garrison Brooks was overpowering defenders, and heck, even Leaky Black surprised us all with a one-handed dunk. Perhaps the most telling tidbit from this game is that Pitt failed to score a field goal for over seven minutes in the middle for the first half, which means that the Heels are investing just as much energy on the defensive end as they are the offense. The level of confidence and toughness UNC is playing with right now is impressive, and it’ll be needed as things will only get harder from here.
A New Way to Impact the Game
Near the beginning of the season, Caleb Love having performances where he shot 30% from the field and 20% from three would be a recipe for disaster. It likely goes without saying that these stats still aren’t good, but the way Love reacted to his poor shooting night was different than what we’ve seen in the past. We saw a level of toughness that wasn’t there before, and it resulted in five assists and only one turnover.
Following his impressive performances against Wake Forest and NC State, it was hard not to hold your breath when it was clear that Caleb Love’s shot wasn’t working for him. He never got discouraged, however, and did an excellent job facilitating the offense while also being highly active on defense. His poise ended up paying off near the end of the game, as he nailed a clutch three-pointer with 2:59 left in the game to keep Pitt from closing the gap anymore than they already had. It’s been exciting seeing so many things from Love that made him one of the best high school prospects in the country. This team will only go as far as he and RJ Davis can take them, so Carolina fans should be able to finally exhale when it comes to the young duo.
Armando Bacot may be the best Tar Heel this season
Before you scroll down to the comment section and try to light me on fire, hear me out: Armando Bacot is currently leading the team in points per game, is second in rebounds per game, and has the second-highest field goal percentage behind Anthony Harris. Every other big not named Walker Kessler is shooting less than 50% from the field, making him the most reliable target in the paint. Though it’s not even just what he’s able to do when it comes to the stats sheet, it’s how good he looks doing it.
As many know, this offseason Armando Bacot put a lot of work into building his body. Now a bit slimmer yet stronger than before, Bacot has figured out how to use his size and strength to his advantage. His footwork has been great, he’s finally learning how to explode to the rim instead of settling for layups, and even when he doesn’t have the ball yet you can see him doing a good job of putting himself in position to call for the ball. His rebounding has also been excellent, and last night he logged his fourth double-double of the season. He is now tied with Day’Ron Sharpe for the most double-doubles this season.
With this team it’s really hard to say definitively who is the best player of the team, but right now it feels like Bacot earns that honor. Could that change? It most certainly could, but considering the fact that he has been arguably the most consistent player on the team, I wouldn’t bet on it.