The North Carolina Tar Heels are preparing to face off against Florida State for the second time this season. The Heels for the most part were able to hang with the Seminoles in the first game down in Tallahassee, and even made it a one-point game with two minutes left in regulation before foul issues and stalled offense created a larger gap. Considering how difficult it is to win in the Donald L. Tucker Center, what happened the last time these two teams met was nothing to be ashamed of. However, tomorrow’s game is about earning a NCAA Tournament resumé booster, and most importantly, cleaning the grime off of themselves from the loss Wednesday night against Marquette.
While it feels like saying a game for UNC is a “must-win” is something that is done ad nauseam, tomorrow is in fact a must-win for the Tar Heels. If they don’t win this one, I can only imagine how much damage they’d have to do in the ACC Tournament (aside from winning the whole thing) to make an impression on the NCAA committee. With that said, let’s take a look at three things to watch in tomorrow’s game.
Which defensive team will show up?
According to Kenpom, UNC currently has the 24th-best adjusted defensive rating in the country. However, their play Wednesday against Marquette did not showcase one of the better defenses in the league at all, and truly it only comes down to one big issue: effort.
Going back to the game against Louisville, UNC did a great job of not only holding the Cardinals well under their season average in field goal percentage, but they also made them look inept from the perimeter. The Heels did a good job of running them off of the three-point line, as Samuell Williamson was their only player to attempt more than three shots from deep. Sure, as we’ve mentioned before the Cardinals were coming off of a long hiatus from live game action, but holding a team to just 6.3% from three-point territory is nothing to scoff at.
Ultimately when it comes to Florida State, UNC’s defense will be the ultimate decider in this game. Letting RaiQuan Gray and M.J. Walker shoot the lights out of the Dean Dome will end this one early, and Scottie Barnes getting to participate in this one makes things that much more difficult. The Heels absolutely cannot have the same lapses that they did against Marquette, or Roy Williams may learn how to rip one of his sweaters before this is one is over.
Find ways to get Kerwin Walton going
One of the biggest contributors to the Heels’ loss to Marquette was Kerwin Walton’s shooting struggles, and the lack of help that comes with a shooter having a bad night. Walton went 2-7 from three-point range mostly because the Golden Eagles did such a great job of staying in his face all night long. While they deserve as much credit as anybody for his struggles, Roy Williams after the game also pointed out some major breakdowns in some of the sets being run. Could that have been an issue in getting Walton better looks? More than likely the answer is yes, but here’s the thing: it’s more likely than not that Walton will shoot better against Florida State, but the bigger issue is that he needs help on the perimeter.
When looking for other Tar Heels that should’ve been able to help take pressure off of Walton, all of them except RJ Davis struggled to knock down shots. Davis, Caleb Love, Leaky Black, and Andrew Platek combined made just three of their 11 three-point attempts. To put it bluntly, this simply cannot happen against Florida State. The unfortunate thing is there’s no specific player that can be called out by name to be the X-factor, as it seems like each of the guards have been very hot or cold with their shot. Kerwin Walton is in need of a huge bounce back game for the Heels to have a chance to win, but perhaps more importantly, he is going to need some help.
I know discussing the mental abilities of players isn’t the most exciting thing in the world when discussing sports, but really the horrific loss to Marquette came down to one major thing: focus. Roy Williams stated after the game that this team doesn’t know how to come off of good losses, and the proof is in the pudding. After beating Kentucky in what was essentially a rivalry game, the Heels laid an egg against NC State. They then beat Pitt in what was a good statement win at the time, only to turn around and lose to Clemson. The win against Duke was followed by a beating thanks to Virginia, and I know what you’re thinking: Virginia is one of the better teams in the country. This argument would hold a lot more water if they didn’t just lose to Duke and NC State, who are two teams that Carolina has beaten.
To put it simply, the loss to Marquette after demolishing Louisville shouldn’t have surprised any of us. This is a young team that is still learning how to win, and one element of learning how to win is learning how to not get so high on yourselves that you underestimate the next opponent. This is exactly what happened Wednesday, and now the Heels need to find a way to re-focus, execute, and remember that no wins are guaranteed in college basketball. With that said, if they do pull off a win against the Seminoles tomorrow, it’ll be really hard not to be extremely concerned about the game against Syracuse on March 1st.