After a tragedy-filled performance against Kentucky over the weekend, Carolina dominated App State to close out their non-conference schedule. The Heels’ defense was much better against the Mountaineers’ undersized team, limiting them to just 31% shooting from the field and 13% from three. Sure, we can pick nits about how this should’ve been an easier assignment for them and they did what they were supposed to do, but as a needed reminder: the previous two years suggest that they didn’t have to perform better this game.
UNC will now go into the rest of ACC play with a 9-3 record, and is currently 1-0 in conference games. This is good enough for third in the conference in win percentage, and ties Miami in the win/loss column. It’s a pretty good position to be in, especially since the only ranked team in the entire conference right now is Duke, who hasn’t won the regular season title since 2010. Yes, the Heels have had one impressive loss and two extremely frustrating losses, but ultimately this team is as much of a contender in the ACC as anybody else. That perhaps is the biggest takeaway from the non-conference portion of the schedule.
With that said, let’s discuss three things that we learned from UNC’s win over App State.
Kerwin Walton’s still got it
One of the more concerning aspects of UNC’s season so far was the lack of Kerwin Walton that we’ve seen. When he was on the court, we didn’t see much of anything from him until last night, and after a while he saw reduced playing time. Thankfully that changed a bit against the Mountaineers — Walton finished the game with six points off of two made three-pointers, which were his first buckets in six games. It took App State almost no time after the second made three to start double-teaming him on the perimeter, so we didn’t see much from there, but he still looked good on offense when he wasn’t able to shoot.
What’s been fascinating about the Tar Heels in Walton’s absence is that they’ve still been an impressive shooting team. In this one the Heels shot 43.8% from three, with makes coming from Leaky Black, Caleb Love, R.J. Davis, Kerwin Walton, and Brady Manek. Knowing that Dawson Garcia is also a capable shooter makes this a ridiculous team to guard, but getting Walton back into the mix would be borderline unfair. His performance last night is one step towards him showing that he’s ready to get more time on the court, but we’ll have to see if he can knock down some shots once ACC play begins. It’s hard to think that he won’t, but if I’m Hubert Davis, I’m drawing up plays for him against Virginia Tech just to make sure.
Nobody can guard Armando Bacot 1-on-1
It’s not often that I make some wild claim that could easily be proven wrong down the line, but what I’m starting to realize about Armando Bacot this season is that no big in the country seems to be able to deal with him 1-on-1. Sure, someone could point to the game against Purdue when he only made one of his six shots, but he also finished the game with five fouls. His performance against the Boilermakers aside, Bacot has been ridiculously efficient from the field, and now has eight double-doubles in the first 12 games of the season. Needless to say, that’s pretty darn good.
If there is one performance I can point to that made me realize just how ridiculous Bacot is, it was the game from Saturday against Kentucky. Oscar Tshiebwe is a load to deal with on both sides of the ball, and Bacot had no problem knocking down shots. I have a feeling that Bacot is catching more scouts’ eyes this season than he ever has before, but the elephant in the room is that he still hasn’t showcased his jumper much from 15+ feet away from the rim. For the Tar Heels, though, he is proving to be the team’s most valuable player, and this team will go as far as he can take them this season.
Understanding who this team is
Now that we’ve gotten through the non-conference schedule, I think we’ve gotten a pretty good idea of what the Tar Heels are as a team. Granted, who they are have morphed as the season has progressed, but I truly think that they are starting to develop an identity, which is good because ACC play is going to be difficult whether there are ranked teams in the league or not.
Offensively, this is a team that does a very good job of hunting open shots on the perimeter, or if the open shot isn’t there, beating up on teams in the paint. Feeding Bacot in the post is still more of a priority than one would think for a more perimeter-oriented team, and that’s exactly how it should be. Bacot has been excellent at reading the floor and kicking the ball out to an open man when the defense collapses on him, and more often than not the Heels have been able to make teams pay. It hasn’t always been pretty, and is definitely far from perfect, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that this team has quite a bit of firepower.
Defensively, this team has improved quite a bit since the beginning of the season, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. It’s hard to be too excited about how well the Heels guarded App State last night, because the games against Tennessee and Kentucky are hard to shake.
What it boils down to I think are two things: UNC’s guards have to find a way to guard the dribble drive without needing the bigs to slide out for help, and there are some players that need to step up and play tougher. Dawson Garcia and Brady Manek specifically are talented offensive players, but their defense has been pretty hot and cold all season long. If Hubert Davis can find a way to get this team to play consistently tough defense, the ACC should be no problem with the biggest exception being Duke. They are more than capable, but they just have to lock in on a nightly basis.
Overall, last night’s game was a good redemption win following the Kentucky loss, and was also a good way to end the non-conference schedule. Now the real fun begins, and we’ll see if UNC can stand out in a conference that has had a pretty poor showing so far this season.