I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve done a disservice to Courtney Banghart and her team thus far this season, and thus, here’s my attempt to start rectifying that: So far, UNC Women’s Basketball has been simply annihilating the teams on the other side of the court, with only Minnesota coming within 10 points of the Heels. And while Banghart’s tendency so far has been to schedule early games against outmatched opponents to get her teams’ legs under them ahead of the conference schedule, through 8 games, they’ve played away from home five times and beaten three Power 5 teams pretty soundly thanks to participating in the Goombay Splash in the Bahamas as well as the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Most notably, in the NCAA’s first NET ratings of the year, which provide a rough estimate of the tournament picture at any point in time, UNC ranked #2 (they’re now #3) — a stark difference from their 24th ranking in the latest Women’s Basketball Coaches poll and their unranked status in the AP Poll. Banghart’s tweet promoting the fact seems to throw some shade that way, especially towards the AP:
Earned, not given.— Courtney Banghart (@CoachBanghart) December 6, 2021
We are #2 in the country in the NET rankings (the NET metric replaced the RPI a few years ago in evaluating the overall quality of teams).
Takes into consideration strength of schedule, where games are played, how convincing the wins, etc. Boom. pic.twitter.com/kOVP1cB2Ec
They’ve done it by excelling at both ends of the floor. The Heels rank 10th in the country in points per game and 5th in opponent points per game; they’ve scored at least 72 points in all but one game and their opponents have only cracked 60 once — and that was Minnesota on the road. Consequently, they’ve got the best average margin of victory in the nation, at over 33 points. Margin of victory isn’t everything, especially against overmatched opponents, but it’s also not nothing, and Banghart’s team is more than taking care of business so far against squads they’re better than.
This is particularly impressive given how much turnover this team has from last year’s squad, including losing big-time contributors Stephanie Watts, Petra Holesinska, and Janelle Bailey. From last year’s team, first-years Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby were the only major contributors returning, with veteran Malu Tshitenge and first-years Kennedy Todd-Williams and Anya Poole also returning after playing comparatively smaller roles on the 2020-21 squad. To bolster them, Banghart recruited to great effect in both the transfer market and the high school route. She attracted a pair of all-conference players to Chapel Hill after they lost seasons to COVID-19: sharpshooter Eva Hodgson from William & Mary and point guard Carlie Littlefield from Princeton, whom Banghart had coached as a first-year before leaving for Chapel Hill. She also pulled in the nation’s #2 high school class, featuring multiple top-20 players. That class’ biggest recruit, forward Teonni Key, tore her ACL in preseason, as did Ariel Young, another of last year’s role players, but the transfers and the rest of the first-years have been dynamite, as have the returning players.
Kelly and Ustby are undoubtedly the engine of the team, picking up from solid first years and really becoming comfortable as college players. Kelly, who at times looked overwhelmed playing point guard in her first year of college ball, has benefited greatly from having Littlefield next to her to ease the playmaking burden and has thrived as a scorer through 8 games. She leads UNC in scoring with 16.4 points per game, and is hitting better than 44% of her 3-point attempts on 3.5 attempts per game while also getting to the foul line often. The next step for her will be cutting down on turnovers a little and getting better at converting inside the arc, which both result in a few too many empty possessions, but her development into a sniper has already made a huge difference for how positively she affects the team. Ustby, meanwhile, was already really good by the end of last year, doing a little bit of everything most nights and absolutely killing N.C. State in an upset. This year, she’s on another level, scoring just under 16 points per game and leading the team in rebounding as a 6’1 guard with nearly 10 a game. UNC’s not a particularly post-heavy team, but Ustby carrying the rebounding load as heavily as she is has alleviated most of the problems that might arise from that aspect of roster construction. She’s also averaging more than 1.5 assists and steals each per game, continuing to affect the game in just about every way possible.
Littlefield and Hodgson, along with some much-needed veteran leadership and stability, have also brought some serious offensive firepower with them. Littlefield leads the team in assists with 2.9 per game while keeping her turnovers at just 1.3, and adds 9.5 points on 44/35/78 shooting splits, and also is probably the best perimeter defender on the team. Hodgson is there to be a sniper; she takes more threes than anybody else on the team and hits over 41% of them while also being extremely efficient inside the arc. Poole and Todd-Williams carry the bulk of the duty on the boards that aren’t cleared by Ustby and play great wing/post defense. Todd-Williams is another jack-of-all-trades but a bit less polished than Ustby, while Poole has been really good at getting good looks in the post. Malu Tshitenge, the team’s longest-tenured player, has provided good backup support in the post, and first-year player Morasha Wiggins rounds out the rotation as an energy-boosting guard off the bench.
The Heels’ most impressive win so far, and possibly the win that most encapsulates them this season, is probably their first game in the Bahamas, against VCU, where they won 72-59. It was uncharacteristic in a few ways: A team that has dominated most first halves found themselves fighting for a halftime lead of just 6 points and the Heels went just 2/13 from long range. Heck, even 59 points was well more than they’d allowed so far, as stingy as it was. But even through a bad shooting night and an opponent they didn’t immediately bury, the Heels used great defense and balanced scoring to, after a VCU third quarter run that gave them a brief lead, pull away from the Rams for good. Ustby had one of her career-best games, with 23 points and 10 boards, while Kelly added 15 and 8 rebounds, Hodgson 14 points, and Littlefield 10 and 4 assists.
The Heels have two more non-conference games, against UNC Asheville and Jacksonville, before starting their conference slate with a trip to Boston College. No matter how well non-con goes, the ACC is a different animal, and you can never really know how things are going to go regardless of how well they’ve gone up to that point. But it’s hard to feel anything but optimism about Courtney Banghart’s squad right now, and hopefully that continues to be the case throughout the season. We’ll keep you posted.