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Tar Heel Hangover: Enjoying college basketball again

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It is amazing how many ills a few wins can cure.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-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.

Two wins since last we met mark a sign of team progression. The comfortable win against NC State at home provided a level of redemption for the poor effort a few weeks earlier. A very nice road win against Pitt is the real proof that this team is playing better and finding its stride.

Perhaps the biggest sign of the times at this point is that college basketball is fun again. Don’t get me wrong; I have always believed that this is the greatest game on the planet. Around midway through last season, however, I could just not bring myself to watch anymore. Sure, we would all still tune in to suffer through the Heels, but watching other games was unthinkable.

On Tuesday night, while smiling following a huge road win, I enjoyed the game of college basketball again. I watched highlights and listened to commentary. Positive words were spoken about the Tar Heels. I even considered national rankings. The game is fun again.

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

It feels like things are starting to click into place for Carolina. Points per game are increasing, the defense looks good, and the margins of victory are getting bigger. But what is really behind this trend and what can be done to encourage it? Time to separate fact from fiction.

First, it seems like Caleb Love is shooting better and getting more into the flow of the offense, though that’s not really the case. Against Pitt Love went 3-10 from the field, including 1-5 from three and a troublesome 1-4 from the free throw line. It was a little better against NC State with a 6-15 performance from the field, 0-2 from three, and 3-4 from the line. That’s a combined 36% from the field and only 1-6 from three. Even worse, Love took the most shots on the entire team for the two game stretch. Looks can be deceiving.

Second, it appears that the team is taking care of the ball better. This one rings true. “Only” 13 turnovers for the each of the last two games is a big improvement and is down from the 15 per game average on the season. The backcourt is slowly improving. Love has 10 assists to 6 turnovers for the week (with five of those turnovers coming against NC State) and RJ Davis has 6 assists to 4 turnovers. While these are not record-breaking stats, they are a step forward from the early season woes.

Finally, the threes are starting to fall. Again, not really. While there were some timely deep shots against the Panthers, the final stat line was a weak 4-17. Versus the Wolfpack, a 4-11 mark was not good. The numbers feel a little better mainly because Kerwin Walton continues to shoot at a productive clip going 2-5 in both games.

This all tells fans that shot selection remains a key. If Love becomes a bit more selective and defers to the efficient front line, then the scoring will increase. The same is true for three-point shooting generally. Of course, not all of those misses result in empty trips for the best offensive rebounding team in the country, but they certainly don’t help.

Key stat for the week.

An area of inconsistency is bench production. Last week, The Hangover discussed the shortening rotation and reduction in bench minutes. One consequence is the potential resulting loss of bench points. With only 15 points against Pitt off the bench the scoring was largely left to the starters. It was a different story Saturday against NC State, when the bench chipped in 38 including three players in double figures.

Scoring in waves will require consistent production from every lineup. That means that in addition to taking good shots, the bench players must convert those opportunities. Future wins will depend on those contributions.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

The Heels are off weekend, which feels odd for this time of year but thus is the scheduling in a pandemic. It is also peculiar to sandwich an open date between three road games. This is a tough scheduling stretch and hopefully the team can keep the positive momentum while working to improve in practice.

This break could be very good for Anthony Harris. Working his way back into the lineup, this seems like an opportune time for a little rest and recovery. It can be hard to get fully into the flow without consecutive practices. Harris should treat this like one further pre-season week and get ready to come out full speed against Clemson.

Final Thoughts

Two more wins make six of the last seven. Even better is that these have not been total nail-biters that came down to the last shot. These were strong outings that have the Heels back in the national spotlight. Maybe things are finally starting to look up.

Stay safe and Go Heels!