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UNC vs Louisville: Three Things Learned

The freshmen were sensational, but one senior stepped up when needed.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time this decade, the Heels finally won a basketball game that was effectively “over” by the second media timeout of the second half. A rusty Louisville squad made the trip to Chapel Hill after their second COVID pause of the season, and promptly took a 45-point drubbing. UNC juussssst missed the triple digits required for biscuits, but a 99-54 victory accomplished the main objective.

This season, a win is a win is a win. North Carolina pushed their home record to 8-0 on the season, and technically moved into coveted 4th place in the ACC. Should there be a normal ACC Tournament, the top four seeds get a first round bye. The Heels are now a half a game above Louisville (due to total games played), and one game behind Virginia Tech.

Besides some basic number crunching, here are a few more things we learned last night.

Senior Moment

The freshmen were sensational. Day’Ron Sharpe, Walker Kessler, Caleb Love, RJ Davis, and Kerwin Walton combined for 65 points, 19 rebounds, 14 assists, six blocks, and six steals. Those five players had more points, assists, and blocks than the entire Louisville team. You’re probably going to see their highlights on other UNC-centric venues throughout the day.

Garrison Brooks, though, provided a steady 12 points and four rebounds and 5-7 shooting. It seems like a rather dull performance compared to the excitement of the young guys, but that takeaway is incorrect. Brook arguably had one of the most important stretches of the game.

The Heels started the second half with a 48-29 lead, but consistency and strong starts to either halves have been hit or miss. Louisville started strong, cutting the lead to 52-37 with 15:33 remaining in the game. It wasn’t exactly time to panic, but the Heels also committed four turnovers in that opening 4:27. The last 18 months have taught UNC fans to be cautiously pessimistic.

Brooks prevented that from happening. Over the next 2:50, he accounted for eight of UNC’s next 10 points, making three field goals and dishing out an assist. He finished the sequence off with a massive block on the defensive end and making a jumper on the next possession. The Heels held a 64-41 lead and Louisville burned a timeout. The Cardinals never got closer than 20 points again.

The result was probably inevitable, but in a noticeable frustrating season for the big man, it was an understated performance at a critical time. Those moments defined his first 2.5 seasons, but have been few and far between this season.

Walker Kessler Arrives (?)

Sharpe was magnificent with 21 points and 11 rebounds. When he plays aggressive and with purpose, there may not be a better freshman big man in the country. We aren’t ignoring him, but he’ll grab other headlines, especially as he’s UNC’s “best” NBA prospect at the moment.

As a collective unit, though, UNC’s front line has been inconsistent. Dominant on some nights, but pushed around by smaller, weaker players on others. Walker Kessler could be a key to unlocking this position group’s full potential. Last night showed what that may look like.

Kessler only played 12 minutes, but that was almost double his season average of 6.7 minutes per game. He responded with 12 points, four rebounds, three assists, two blocks, and two steals. He was tied for the team-high at a +28 efficiency mark. It was his second memorable performance in as many games, after recording 10 points, seven rebounds, two assists, one block, and one steal in 12 minutes of action against Northeastern.

The big man is a casualty of the COVID-season, robbed of crucial summer development and early season games against lesser competition. Those events are critical for freshman production, especially in a front court as crowded as UNC’s. His season has reflected those missed opportunities.

Yet, per sports-reference, on a projected per-40 minute basis, he is third among regular contributors in scoring (17.8) and second in rebounds (14.2), and first in steals (2.7) and blocks (2.7). In other words, when he’s on the court, despite a few forgettable performances, Kessler simply produces. That added production from the bench may be the difference in a first-round exit or a surprise NCAA Tournament run.

Sharing is Caring

I get it. Louisville was rusty. It was a home game. UNC needed the win and made sure to play a full 40 minutes. Add whatever caveat you want.

Just recognize that 29 assists on 42 field goals is a special level of sharing the ball. That is the most assists UNC has recorded in a game this season. It is just the 11th time since 2010-2011 that they’ve recorded at least that many. That very nice assist rate of 69% is the third highest percentage of the season, tying the Pittsburgh game. The Heels had an assist rate of 70% at Florida State and 71% at Iowa.

Some of that was buoyed by 26 points off of 16 Louisville turnovers. Many of those were part of UNC’s 26 fast break points. Assists are always easier in the open court.

But, many of those assists also came within the offense. Most notably, they were spread out across the team. Andrew Platek led the way with five assists, followed by Walton and Leaky Black with four apiece. Kessler, Love, Davis, and Anthony Harris were all credited with three and Brooks finished with two. Sharpe and Bacot brought up the rear with one each.

In total, 10 players recorded at least one assist.

The Heels on the receiving end of those passes obviously have to convert, and it always helps to shoot 60.9%. But some of those conversions were due to the right pass, at the right time, off the right reads. That ball movement, including pinpoint big-to-big passing, also helped UNC score a season high 58 points in the paint.

Now the Heels get ready for an unconventional non-conference game. Marquette comes to town on Wednesday, and the Heels will try to remain undefeated at home.