Hey, that was fun! I’d ask for more of that from this team, but it seems like every time I ask or expect them to carry over a performance to their next game, they decide to not do that — and there’s no better example than me hoping that Louisville game marked a corner being turned leading into the Marquette stinker, and then me being convinced that goose egg was going to translate into a stomping by the Seminoles before the Heels willed themselves to an 8-point victory. For that reason, writing this article feels almost oxymoronic: how much can we learn from a team that refuses any definition or clarity? Is pointing out positive signs just an exercise in tempting fate? I’m trying, and mostly succeeding, to enjoy the feeling of a win against the #11 team in the country (coupling it with a Duke loss doesn’t hurt), but I do wish I could be more confident that the positives from this game might be something this team builds on as the season draws to a close. Let’s discuss them, and hope there’s something there:
1. Freshmen taking over
Many of us writers at Tar Heel Blog, both in our own Slack group and in various articles, have bemoaned this team’s lack of upperclassman leadership from people who we’d expected to provide it. Garrison Brooks is the most visible, and has drawn most of our ire because he was so good at it last year (not even getting into the play aspect of things), but that doesn’t excuse Andrew Platek or Leaky Black, both of whom have certainly played enough minutes in the ACC to be able to exert some authority over their teammates, and yet haven’t done so, waiting to be carried by their younger counterparts. For their part, the freshmen haven’t really played scared, but they have played young — they’ve given effort and fearlessness, but haven’t tried to collect their team and elevate the group intangibly so much as try to put things on their back, a feat for which none of them is ready.
That didn’t change completely this game, but there were signs of the team’s youth taking steps towards making this team theirs, as it evidently should be. Non-freshmen took just 2 shots in the first half, and though the half was ugly (FSU went to the locker room with a 41-29 lead), it was clear where any kind of comeback was going to have to come from. In the end, UNC’s 4 non-freshmen scored just 12 of UNC’s 79 points between them and only Leaky Black really made a mark on the game at all, while, due both to Roy Williams playing with rotations to allow more freshmen on the floor together and said freshmen deciding to force the issue, it was the team’s youth that created the comeback, whether it was Walker Kessler going on an 8-0 run by himself (on his way to a game-high 20) to tie the game, Caleb Love turning a chasedown block into a nifty transition assist, or Kerwin Walton, who apparently made 288 out of 300 free throws over the course of last week, keeping the ‘Noles at bay near the end of the game. If nothing else, I’d like this to be a sign that some sense of identity has been found here through the freshmen, because the freshmen’s youth and the upperclassmen’s reluctance have so far forestalled that from happening.
2. Free Throws are a big deal
Even with Kessler’s takeover that lasted the first 12 or so minutes of the second half (and we’ll have more about that in our Player of the Game article. Spoilers, like you didn’t already know), the Heels wouldn’t have won this game without doing the thing that Roy Williams likes almost as much as rebounding: making more free throws (27) than the opponent attempted (20). After several games where free throw shooting has hampered, if not outright sunk, the Heels, shooting 27/30 from the charity stripe was both a welcome surprise and a necessity against an opponent as good as Florida State. Here’s a sobering thought: UNC was shooting 65% from the line before this game. If they’d maintained that percentage, the same number of free throw attempts would have given them 19 or 20 makes, making this game much more of a white-knuckler at best.
Breaking it down: Caleb Love, who was one of the ACC’s best free throw shooters before a recent slump, was perfect on 6 attempts. R.J. Davis and Walton didn’t miss any of their 4 apiece. Even the bigs, who have been the primary source of the awful free throw shooting we’ve seen, were great: Brooks, Armando Bacot, and Kessler were all perfect on their sole trips to the line, and Day’Ron Sharpe was a respectable 3/4. Black’s 4/6 constituted the only two other misses, and those misses came early on in the game, because the Heels made their last 19 attempts, making sure that their comeback bid came through. I’m even less ready to say that this looks like a permanent change than I was about the previous point, but it does show a capability, and free throws are, after all, as much a mental thing as they are a physical one. Maybe going 90% on 30 attempts in this big a game could instill some confidence in players who have needed it at the line.
I could snark here about Doug Sherman and Corey Alexander and the scant amount of time they spent discussing the game in front of them, but I’m a bigger person than that (maybe). What I’ll say instead is that after the Marquette game, I don’t think there was a single Heels fan, or even national prognosticator, who was including Florida State as one of the two regular season games UNC now had to win to give them a strong chance at the NCAA Tournament. Everybody had chalked it up as a loss and assumed they’d have to beat Syracuse and Duke, right? Anyways, with a Q1 win under their belts (and the win at Cameron Indoor retroactively becoming another, recently), that calculus has changed quite a bit, and the Heels’ position in the field of 64 looks pretty strong barring a massive collapse — which is unfortunately extremely imaginable with this team. What I’m saying is that nothing is certain, but it does seem like the Heels improved their tournament standing with this win at least as much as they’d seemed to tank it with their loss against Marquette. Of course, they’ve still got business to take care of between now and Selection Sunday, but I’ve got to imagine that this win was a good way to flush away the Marquette stinker, both in psyche and in the bigger picture. Now they’ve just got to figure out a way to not lay down another.