After a win on Wednesday that felt like a huge fork in the road, Hubert Davis and the Tar Heels trekked down to Atlanta for a matchup against Georgia Tech. The place has been a house of horrors for Carolina (funnily enough when I said that to a friend my iPhone autocorrected it to “House of Hornets” which was just great), as they hadn’t won in Atlanta since 2019. The defensive style of the Yellow Jackets always seemed to throw the Heels a curveball, and the program was coming off an ACC Tournament Championship last season. Thus, it was another test to see how the Heels would do.
Safe to say they passed. Let’s talk about what we learned.
A big concern going into the game was that Carolina would slacken their intensity some after a huge win at home Wednesday, but they let it be known quickly that was not going to be the case. The Tar Heels raced out to a 12-4 lead, and seemed like they were set to build off of Wednesday night. Instead, Georgia Tech tore back, going 5-5 from three and turning their eight point deficit to a nine point lead.
So why are we saying the effort was consistent from Wednesday? The fact is that the torrid shooting wasn’t going to continue for Tech, and the Tar Heels did not allow themselves to get too down after the explosion. They worked hard defensively to scrap their way back, as Anthony Harris managed to hit a jumper to tie it before the first half ended. They let Tech score the first four points of the second, and then replicated their success against Michigan by consistently feeding it inside. Georgia Tech reacted just like Michigan, which opened up RJ Davis and Caleb Love to rain some threes, and in the blink of an eye the Tar Heels were up eleven before the second TV timeout. The lesson for the team here was that what they were doing was working, and if they trusted it, they would win over time. Just like Michigan they didn’t panic, and focused to flip the script.
Defense Figuring It Out
Another concern was whether or not the effort to stop Michigan would be replicated, or if we’d see the same defensive effort of the first few games. While 46.3% shooting total effort isn’t great, it’s also another sub-50% game. They also managed to keep the Jackets under 50% in a first half where they shot 5-8 from three. As noted, they started 5-5, but finished 6-16! So yes, those of us doing math tell us they finished 1-11 from three after starting 5-5.
The shots weren’t flukes either, they were the result of hurried possessions as the Tar Heels stuck to their assignments and made sure they were on the shooters. They also finished with eight steals, two blocks, and forced 13 turnovers. Doing it against Michigan at home is one thing, but doing it on the road in a conference game with the crowd sensing an upset is a completely different script, and it’s a good sign for the rest of the year. They may never be a great defensive squad, but as their offense finished shooting 56.4% overall, including 65.5% in the second half and 58.8% from three, they don’t need to be the best. Just adequate will win them a lot of games.
No Wasted Games
In a lot of ways we should know this by now, but one thing made clear yesterday was that Hubert Davis wants the core guys to know what it’s like to win, and everyone else is just along for the ride unless they can show something in practice. Take last year’s best shooter Kerwin Walton. On Sunday he only played seven minutes, didn’t take a shot, and saw a lot of his minutes go to Anthony Harris. Davis, Love, and Bacot played over 35 minutes each, Black and Manek played close to 30, and no one else was close to 20.
This is important to note because between now and their next ACC contest against Virginia Tech they have Elon, Furman, UCLA, and Appalachian State. Since UCLA is a national title contender, we pretty much know how those rotations will look, but even in the games where Carolina will be favored, don’t expect to see a lot of the bench guys unless the Tar Heels are ahead by a lot in the second half. Davis has made it clear that several guys are only here for one season, and as the grinder of the ACC season gets close, there’s no time to smooth over egos and dole out playing time unless you show you can contribute immediately. It’s a huge change from Roy Williams, but it’s paying dividends as it’s clear that the team is figuring things out now instead of through January like they usually would.
Bonus: ESPN Is Horrible
The stats on our site show a lot of you kept coming back here to confirm the game was going to be on ESPN2, which instead was showing post race coverage from an F1 event. RL Bynum tracked down the reason for this, but after missing the entire first half and then being treated to announcers calling from a remote location (you can always tell based on the audio), it’s yet another reason why fans are swearing at the all sports network. Maybe in the future, make sure the basketball game is on a channel that won’t get preempted. What do you have the ACC Network for anyway?