Even after an ugly conference win, things look less dire for UNC men’s basketball than they did after a couple of ugly conference losses. It only takes a look at last year’s UNC football team to realize that you need to win ugly and close before winning nice and big, and after a full season of close losses that piled on top of one another, Saturday’s win against Notre Dame feels like it can be a pivot point for this season if the Heels take it the right way.
Tomorrow, they take the road to Coral Gables for a game against a struggling and shorthanded Miami team with the opportunity to get back to .500 in ACC play and get a winning streak going to start off the new year. Here’s what to look for:
Tinkering with the Starting Lineup
The past two games have featured two starting lineups that were both pretty different from each other and very different from the lineup that had started the first eight games of the season: The first, against Georgia Tech, replaced Caleb Love with Andrew Platek, Leaky Black with Kerwin Walton, and Garrison Brooks with Day’Ron Sharpe, which got out to an early lead before the team as a whole ultimately stalled and lost. The second put Love back in the lineup and erstwhile starter R.J. Davis on the bench and re-inserted Black for Platek.
This signals two things to me: first, that Roy Williams sees right now that his freshman point guards are better playing without each other than with and doesn’t see a huge difference between the two’s abilities to run his offense; and second, that benching Black was a message, while benching Brooks might have been something more — based on his underwhelming play so far this year and Williams’ supposed willingness to do anything to win this season, it isn’t hard to see this as just an acknowledgement that Brooks has both regressed and been outplayed by at least two of his frontcourt teammates rather than a message with an endpoint.
What I don’t see is any indication that Williams is done tinkering just because of a one-point win. I’m pretty sure he wants to be able to start two point guards if and when that’s possible, for example, and he’s also going to want to address some things on the defensive end after Nate Lascewski nearly buried his team from behind the arc. Does that mean Black and Platek, the team’s best perimeter defenders, play together at the expense of reliable perimeter offense?
If so, does that mean having just one ball-handler or going small-ish (the 6’9 Black can certainly bang and rebound with most ACC frontcourts)? Against another perimeter-oriented, high-ball screen team in Miami, we might see one more piece of the puzzle.
There is no denying that UNC’s frontcourt has been what has kept it in the games it’s lost and carried it to the games it has won, but with the exception of Armando Bacot, they’ve also not been everything they could be lately. Against mostly teams that don’t have the Heels’ size and depth in the post, the play hasn’t been pretty: Sharpe, for example, shot better than 60% from the field in his first six games and has been under 50% in his last four. He is missing a lot of close attempts due to not getting off the ground like he’s capable and falling too in love with a baseline spin that gets him stonewalled as often as it gets him space, and he hasn’t been near the rim protector that he was early in the season.
Brooks’ struggles have been well-litigated, of course, but his issues have stemmed from playing to overcome his size rather than just playing sound basketball — he’s got a little more to address than just ability to dominate. Regardless, though the frontcourt has had most of UNC’s offense lately, they’ve been leaving a lot of possessions empty, and that reduces the potential for the extra possessions that a UNC roster like this one needs, among other things.
Miami’s roster isn’t much different from those we’ve seen recently: Nysier Brooks at 7’0 is their primary post presence, and he’s good, but not great as far as making his presence felt down low - he averages 6.8 rebounds per game, which isn’t great, but nearly two blocks, which is quite good. Miami has some other size, but no other forward who rebounds even close to that level, suggesting that UNC has a physicality advantage with Brooks, Bacot, and Sharpe on the boards and probably in the post generally.
It would be great to see them take full advantage and not only take the lion’s share of offense, as they have been, but be efficient doing so and bury a team rather than just keeping up - and then opening up the outside when it becomes clear that the opposition can’t beat the Heels in the post.
A Tale of Two Teams
UNC has had a good bit more success against a tougher schedule than 4-4 (0-3) Miami has thus far, and analytically, Kenpom puts them ahead of the Canes by a fair margin. But statistically, from afar, the two teams are shockingly similar: their average margin of victory is nearly identical, they have about the same number of assists per game on similar tempo, each blocks 4.5ish shots per game, UNC has 5 players averaging between 8 and 12 points while Miami has 4.
The differences are that Miami has a primary scorer, Isaiah Wong, who averages nearly 18 points per game, while UNC’s scoring load has been more balanced, that Miami is a good rebounding team (particularly with good rebounding wings in Earl Timberlake and Harlond Beverly) while UNC is an elite one, and that while both schools have shot poorly from distance (UNC’s actually got a better percentage), Miami has several shooters at better than 40%. Chris Lykes likely won’t play while he recovers from an ankle injury, but Timberlake and Cross both play a lot of the 4 and shoot pretty well, which could present problems for the Heels if they don’t adjust to whatever problems opened Lascewski up as much as he was.
This kind of similarity, that’s pretty different granularly but has seen similar results on a bigger scale, makes this game hard to predict at all: which differences ultimately win out, if any? It seems like this could be another seesaw as the differences cancel each other out on the court, or a blowout as one team’s advantages in a particular area, be it rebounding or stretching the floor, prove to be too much for the other’s. It’ll be an interesting one to watch, philosophically. Hopefully it’s also a fun one for those of us rooting for the Heels.