The North Carolina Tar Heels are coming off a comfortable 82-62 victory over Northeastern on Wednesday wherein six players scored nine or more points. Carolina was originally supposed to play Virginia Tech this past week but positive COVID tests within the Hokies program caused it to be postponed. Ultimately, it may have worked out better for a Heels team that needed a bounce back game after that posting a miserable 48 points versus Virginia.
However, this team is still in search of quality wins as they are yet to record one quadrant 1 victory. A home matchup with Louisville won’t qualify as a quadrant 1 matchup but it’s still an opportunity for the Heels to add to their resume and keep themselves on the right side of the bubble. Here are three things to watch on Saturday when Carolina takes on the Cards.
The Emergence of Walker Kessler
Walker Kessler made his presence felt for the second game in a row, this time posting 10 points, seven rebounds and two assists while also adding a block and a steal. He was somewhat of a silver lining in what was an otherwise putrid Virginia game, putting up nine points and five rebounds in that one. The best part is that he’s doing his damage in relatively limited playing time, logging 12 and 11 minutes in those games, respectively.
Kessler knew he wasn’t going to play much coming into the season, with veterans Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot as well as potential lottery pick Day’Ron Sharpe all ahead of him in the big man pecking order. However, he plays with heart and energy every time he steps on the floor. His willingness to sacrifice his body for loose balls is something I’ve never quite seen before from a player of his stature. Kessler is just one of those players who does exactly what the coaches ask of him, and he does it well. When you pair that with the NBA size/length he possesses, and it can be a deadly combo.
All of this being said, Kessler is carving himself out a legitimate role as we draw closer to March. Given the fact that Louisville doesn’t have anyone that can truly match his size in the paint, he could be a significant factor yet again in this one.
Knocking Down Threes
By this point, most people have come to terms with the fact that this is simply not a great shooting team. Still, there are undoubtedly guys on this team that can make shots. Kerwin Walton is currently carrying the load with a 44.6% clip from deep, but Andrew Platek, R.J. Davis, and Caleb Love are all guys who’ve proven they can knock down threes when left alone.
Carolina was on fire from the outside when they played Duke, finishing the game at 66.7% (10-15) as a team. However, it was a little disconcerting to watch them follow that up with a horrid 12.5% (2-16) three-point shooting output against Virginia, and then miss a handful of wide open ones in the game against Northeastern. Like I said, we know at this point that this isn’t an elite shooting team, but you have to at least be able to keep defenses honest.
Thus, I expect Coach Williams to run Walton through a lot of screens and try to get him involved early and often. Additionally, the bigs will need to a much better job than they did against Virginia of identifying double teams, surveying the court, and finding the open man. I really like the Heels’ chances in this one if they’re able to knock down some three balls.
Playing With a Sense of Urgency
Contrary to many of the Carolina teams in the past that have struggled, I don’t think this team necessarily has an issue with toughness. People sometimes like to use turnovers as a barometer for laziness and lack of focus but I believe youth is the biggest reason for the Heels’ inability to take care of the ball consistently. With it being such an unconventional season, it’s taken longer than it perhaps normally would have for freshmen like Love and Davis to get adjusted.
We’re now in the latter half of February, though, and you don’t get to make those excuses anymore. Given where the team stands in regards to receiving an at-large bid, the Heels should view this matchup as an elimination game, even if it ultimately isn’t. It will be the team’s first ACC game in the Smith Center in almost a month, which is just added motivation. From here on out, if these guys aren’t leaving everything they have out there on the court, then they probably don’t deserve to go to the tournament anyway.