Welcome to The Dean’s List! The weekly segment that brings readers hot takes, freezing cold takes, and everything in between from the world of Carolina athletics.
As many of our regular readers know, over the last few years I’ve released a best-case/worst-case scenario piece prior to the start of each basketball season to give my personal opinion of what I think the Tar Heels are capable of. However, now that we are currently in the middle of the weirdest basketball season in NCAA history, I figured it was only right that I add on to the weird and give my updated views of where I think this team can go, and how badly this could all fall apart.
Without wasting any time, let’s dive right in.
What I said then: UNC would miss the NCAA Tournament thanks to shooting woes, and would finish in the middle of the pack in the ACC.
What I think now: The Tar Heels have scored 80+ points in three of their last five games, and over the last two games they have made over 50% of their field goals. To put that into context, last season the Heels scored 80+ points in seven regular season games. Considering the fact that they have roughly half the amount of 80-point games that they had last season, we can maybe assume that things won’t be quite as bad as last season when it’s all said and done. Maybe.
Here’s the problem: UNC has figured out their offense, yes, but inconsistencies still run rampant throughout this roster. Yesterday in my three things learned article I discussed how Armando Bacot has been the most consistent player on the team. Outside of him and maybe Kerwin Walton, it’s been hard to trust any one player when they have the ball. Caleb Love had two very good shooting nights before struggling against Pitt. Garrison Brooks’ efficiency left a lot to be desired prior to, well, having a good game against Pitt. Leaky Black has had three great games recently following two abysmal shooting nights. Finally, RJ Davis and Day’Ron Sharpe have been relatively efficient, but the amount of points they pour in varies wildly from game to game.
Of course basketball isn’t all about putting the ball in the basket, but this is the department that gave me the greatest amount of concern at the beginning of the season when it came to the Tar Heels’ floor. On paper it looked like this team had 2018-19 potential, but at the start of the season they looked like a 2019-20 remix. So what’s the reality of where things are? Probably somewhere in the middle, and if that is the case then things are not too bad. This team only has five losses compared to the 10 last year around this exact time (which as we all know has to be taken with a grain of salt since there are fewer games this season), and the win against Pitt was the first Quadrant 1 win of the season. There are currently four quadrant 1 games left for the Tar Heels as it stands now against Clemson on the road, Virginia on the road, Florida State at home, and Virginia Tech on the road. I think it’s realistic that they win half of these remaining games at worst, which might be enough to lock up an at-large bid.
So what do I see as the floor for this team? They’ll make the NCAA Tournament, and hopefully escape the round of 64 before things get hairy in the round of 32. Not too bad compared to last year’s results, right?
What I said then: UNC would finish in the top three in the ACC, lose the ACC Tournament, and make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
What I think now: The Tar Heels have been firing on all cylinders lately, and a lot of that is due to the fact that the bigs have finally been dominant in the paint, they are leading the country in rebounding, the guards are playing better, and the turnover issue is better but still not completely fixed. Roy Williams also has a reliable shooter out on the perimeter in Kerwin Walton, with occasional special guest appearances from Caleb Love, Leaky Black, RJ Davis, and Andrew Platek. Teams are having to respect them just enough on the perimeter to where things are opening up in the paint, thus finally giving this team some breathing room.
As far as the defensive side of the ball goes, no team has shot 50% or more from the floor against Carolina since the Georgia Tech game on December 30th. The Heels have made it very difficult for teams to get easy shots mostly thanks to the size they have near the rim, but Leaky Black has also done a great job on opponents’ key players when he is assigned that particular matchup. Even when looking at opponents’ three-point percentages lately, they haven’t been able to do as much damage as it often feels like they are doing. In fact, just three of the last seven opponents have been able to shoot 40% or better from deep, with Pitt shooting exactly 40% a couple of nights ago. One could argue that anything better than 35% is still not great, but for this team I see it as progress.
So, now that we’ve taken a look at how this team has improved, what do I think this team’s ceiling is? Funny enough I feel like my previous outlook when it comes to the NCAA Tournament is exactly where I’m at right now, but I do view the ACC situation a bit differently. Looking at the remaining schedule, the only two teams that I’m not so sure UNC can beat are Virginia and Florida State. The Virginia game will be difficult because of their style of play and also because it’s in Charlottesville, and the Florida State game will be difficult considering the fact that they won without Scottie Barnes when the Heels faced them the first time, who is the Seminoles’ second-best scorer. If they can win one of those two games, I think they have a reasonable chance to finish in the top three in the conference.
With that said, I do think this team could win the ACC Tournament. One thing that I’ve noticed about this conference in recent weeks is that UNC is really the only team that is trending up in terms of what kind of progress they are making. While I do think the remainder of UNC’s schedule isn’t going to be easy, I also don’t think there’s a dominant team in the ACC right now. I think the Tar Heels have an opportunity to become that team IF they can continue to improve each and every week until March. As far as the NCAA Tournament goes, UNC has a 50-50 chance to end up in a bracket with Gonzaga or Baylor, which are two teams that look unstoppable right now. If seeding is kind, this could be a second weekend team. If the Heels end up in a situation where Baylor or Gonzaga are waiting in the first weekend , however, just know that a first weekend exit would be nothing to be ashamed of.