This win feels bigger than a game played on December 1st should — maybe it’s because of how sharply reversed some of this UNC team’s early-season troubles appeared, or how seldom UNC’s been able to beat ranked teams not located in Durham the past few years, or maybe it was simply because we haven’t seen a UNC team put this kind of beatdown on a good opponent in a while — or maybe all three and then some. Nevertheless, while it’s tough to prognosticate any trends off of one game, let alone one played before conference play starts, here’s three things I hope we’ll be able to take away from this game:
After Mohegan Sun made it clear that UNC’s combination of low defensive effort and adjustment to a new scheme were untenable, we saw some tweaks against UNC-Asheville ahead of Thanksgiving. Bigs hedged a little harder on ball screens rather than dropping, and the perimeter defense was less concerned about giving up the middle and paid more attention to helping on-ball from a pass away, doing more of what they had been coached to do last year, and that seemed to help some, but there were still issues, and UNC-A, with no disrespect is not exactly a team you want to set your defensive barometer to. After another game with these changes, this one against a ranked Power 5 opponent that had previously had a top-15 offense, there’s a lot more to be happy about. While the UNC-A game was more notable for schematic tweaks, this game’s defensive takeaways are all about effort: Caleb Love and R.J. Davis both did a much better job of fighting through screens and recovering to a ballhandler, Armando Bacot stood his ground against every big Michigan had (including 2nd Team All-American Hunter Dickinson), and the team created havoc at the point of attack and in passing lanes, creating 13 turnovers (6 of them live-ball). It was the kind of defensive effort that had been lacking from everybody on the roster, and if this level of buy-in can get consistent, look out.
Winning a clean game
I had some quibbles with the officiating — Caleb Love getting called for a block because he got elbowed in the face being my biggest gripe — but at the end of the day, it was fun and refreshing to watch a college basketball game that had just 18 fouls called. The flip side of that, though, is some statistical anomalies for UNC, especially after an offensive philosophy through the years that has prioritized getting to the free throw line. The Heels took just three free throws, making 2 (the third was a Dontrez Styles miss in garbage time) to complete and-one opportunities. I don’t have the record books, but I wouldn’t be surprised if 3 was the lowest number of free throw attempts for a UNC team since before Roy Williams, and I would be surprised if a modern UNC team had ever gone a full game without a single two-shot foul before this one. It’s nothing new to say that this team so far has been offensively pretty fantastic, but it bears reaffirming that averaging 1.13 points per possession while only shooting 3 free throws is patently absurd, especially after a 29-point first half. It’s a really good sign that the offense won’t disappear when the Heels feel like they’re getting the short end of the whistle, which will undoubtedly happen throughout the season — this game wasn’t an exercise in overcoming officiating, but the team’s ability to score in bunches in live-ball situations makes me feel like they won’t get stymied by some calls not going their way in pivotal moments later on this season.
The first few home games of the season felt good just because we had fans back in the Dean Smith Center, but they still hadn’t felt quite like Carolina basketball should, thanks to a combination of a lot of new faces on the team, lackluster defensive effort making it hard for a crowd to sustain excitement, and early-season opponents that fans didn’t really care to antagonize. This game, though, felt like vintage Carolina, with the Dean Dome as loud as it’s ever gotten for a non-conference game thanks to the aforementioned defensive intensity and sustained excellence on both ends of the floor, especially in the second half. But it wasn’t just the crowd that felt different; the Heels on the floor also felt amped up in a way we haven’t seen since maybe 2019. The team’s two and-1’s felt momentous thanks to teammates loudly celebrating each other, and that hasn’t always been the case through 6 games. And most obviously, Caleb Love, after hitting a three-pointer from approximately Charlotte for his fourth of the night, backpedaled about 50 feet with the biggest smile I’ve seen on his face since he became a Tar Heel. This game just seemed like it was fun for the Heels in a way that basketball hasn’t been at UNC since the pandemic started. I hope that’s a harbinger of things to come, both for its own sake and because when these Heels are having fun, they’re also pretty dang good at basketball.