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The Dean’s List: Getting out of their own heads

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Fans can feel this team’s mental struggles, and it’s on full display on the court.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Miami-Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Sports psychology has to be one of the most interesting components that exists when we discuss athletes and/or sports teams. In fact, I feel like it’s an underrated conversation that is had, as a lot of the time we are quick to discuss technique, scheme, physical ability, and even coaching before we ever get to what’s going on in any given players’ head. In the case of Carolina basketball, I feel like that conversation is one that is long overdue, and it goes back as far as their second loss of the 2019-20 season against Ohio State.

The seventh-ranked Tar Heels went into their matchup against the sixth-ranked Buckeyes 6-1, with their only loss to that point coming from an unranked Michigan team. The alarm bells hadn’t been set off just yet, as the loss to Michigan wasn’t any different than anything that happened in years past. The loss to Ohio State, however, despite this happening against a top-ten team, set off every alarm within reach. The problem was that even after this game, a lot of people (including me) ignored almost all said alarms, despite the team finishing the game shooting a putrid 27.4% from the field, and Cole Anthony being the only player to reach double digits. UNC would go on to finish the season 14-19 overall and 6-14 in the ACC, but had as bad of a record as 3-13 following their loss to Louisville.

Fast forward to now, and truthfully things are “better” for this year’s team, but it’s complicated to say the least. As we all know, COVID forced ACC teams to start conference play early, and so the Heels this season are 7-4 overall and 2-2 in ACC play. In the same amount of games last season, they had one more loss overall and were 1-1 in the conference. Truthfully, though, things look so similar to last year from a record standpoint that quite honestly it’s a bit terrifying. So terrifying, in fact, that one has to wonder if players that returned last year are experiencing deja vu. Even more importantly, one has to wonder what is going through the minds of the six freshmen that committed to UNC to prevent this all from happening.

During the post-game press conference after their win against Miami, Leaky Black stated that he felt like this team was loaded compared to a team like Miami. A member of the media later asked him if this team was loaded, then why haven’t they performed up to their potential? Here was Black’s answer:

“Maybe a confidence thing? You know, just getting out of their own heads and just playing. They’re good players. Once they get out of their own heads, it’s pretty much simple from that point.”

You may notice the use of the word “they”. Unquestionably, Leaky Black himself has had his own battles with confidence, which was mainly prevalent last season. So far this season we have seen him get better and better, and against the Hurricanes he had the best shooting night of his college career. He earned the right to say what we’ve all been thinking: many of his teammates have lost confidence, are overthinking, and in general are just playing uncharacteristically.

Take Caleb Love for instance. Coming out of high school three-point shooting was not his strength by a long shot. Sure, he could knock down shots from the perimeter, but a lot of his game revolves around driving to the basket. This season we’ve seen him shoot a large volume of threes, take weird mid-range jumpers off fast breaks, and throw up questionable floaters rather than driving to the rim. This isn’t counting the high volume of turnovers that him and R.J. Davis share blame in committing.

Then there’s a senior like Garrison Brooks. In the game against Miami, Brooks looked mentally beaten in a way that I have rarely seen out of a Carolina player. I know that look all too well, because I watched an unreal amount of Chicago Bulls games last season and everyone on the team had the same look by the time the season was over. Brooks finished the game against the Hurricanes 1 of 7 from the floor, scored six points, had seven rebounds, and committed four fouls. For what it’s worth he had three blocks on defense, but all and all, this was a game that proved to me that something is absolutely broken in him, which is saying a lot considering how well he played in last year’s disastrous season.

It’s safe to say we at least know part of the problem: Roy Williams has been tinkering with the starting lineup, and as a result Garrison Brooks has been coming off the bench after being a starter basically his entire UNC career. Leaky Black was also one of the players benched, but the key difference is that Black has responded in exactly the way that Roy Williams wants his players to respond in that situation. He’s been a big positive for this team, and even hit the game-winning shot against Notre Dame over the weekend. Andrew Platek has also done a good job fighting for playing time, as he too has not only improved his game, but hit the game-winning shot against Miami.

I remember once upon a time hearing about how Roy Williams has to treat all of his players differently, because every guy responds to different things. Remember Brice Johnson? After three years of Roy Williams screaming at him, he became one of the best players in college basketball. Meanwhile, Kennedy Meeks needed a different form of treatment, or else he would just shut down (feel free to fact-check me on that one). What concerns me the most is that Williams doesn’t have a lot of time this season to find the right buttons to press with these freshmen, and in the case of Garrison Brooks, it may be too late to figure it out. However, the remedy is for players to find some way to dig deep, get out of their own heads, and just play basketball.

I don’t know what to possibly tell freshmen point guards to help them get going. Heck, I especially don’t know what to tell a senior big in order to help him regain his confidence. What I do know is that it might be up to guys like Leaky Black and Andrew Platek to help get their teammates to just relax, remember that they are at UNC for a reason, and to just play. Worrying too much about messing up, about making the right pass, or taking the right shot can sometimes do a good amount of damage. If someone, whether it’s the coaches or one of the players, could just get some of these players to remember who they are, I think we will see huge improvement moving forward.

To wrap it up, I do apologize to anyone who was expecting analysis that was more on the technical side. Sometimes the issues with teams are way too easy to figure out, and we as fans and media make the issue way more complicated than it is. This team has a big confidence issue, and I really hope that back-to-back wins in the ACC is at least enough to give give the team enough confidence to take down a good team in Clemson this weekend. We will find out soon enough.

Go Heels!