Gross. A week after putting in their best performance of the season and seemingly on track to improve to the ranks of decent teams, UNC’s men’s basketball team came out of a week off seemingly not knowing what basketball was, looking absolutely listless en route to being hammered by a previously down-and-out Clemson team, 63-50. Nearly everything positive you could say about the Heels a week ago was absent, and I’m hoping, as I think we all should, that the title of this article is a misnomer and there’s truly nothing to learn from this game. That said, I’ve got a job to do, so let’s look back on this game one last time:
1. It’s time to talk about Garrison Brooks’ senior slump
There’s no real way around it: Garrison Brooks has been beyond disappointing this year. Some of the regression in raw numbers was expected just by virtue of having more talented frontcourt teammates who would take off some of the scoring and rebounding load he shouldered last season. But on the court, he hasn’t even looked close to who he was the past three years, let alone last year’s star who was expected to be among the ACC’s best players. The clean footwork that got him around bigger bodies around the rim? Gone entirely in favor of turnaround jumpers off the slightest bit of contact. He’s the third-best rebounder in the bigs rotation rather than among the best, but he hasn’t even seemed to want to hit the boards this year. His jumper hasn’t improved in form or effectiveness, only in volume. His positional defense, once a strength, has gone entirely missing: he’s misreading screens and leaving guards out to dry, keeping his hands down on stretch fours on the perimeter, and can’t hold his ground in the post except occasionally. At least he’s making big-big passes competently, but that’s little solace with everything else he’s doing. He’s had a couple of good games this season, but not even any of those have looked like the Brooks who’s improved as a Heel each season, just like a limited player getting lucky. Against Clemson, it was more of the same. The statline of 8 points and 9 rebounds even looks decent for what he’s been doing this season, but 4/10 shooting the ball isn’t going to cut it with the quality of looks he should be able to, and for the most part did, find.
In recent years, Tar Heel fans have grown accustomed to slight senior slumps. Joel Berry was a very good player his senior year, but he was an excellent player as a junior. Kenny Williams and Luke Maye the following year dropped off hard from their junior year peaks and ruined the breakouts of Coby White and Cam Johnson. Last year, Brandon Robinson couldn’t really extrapolate his solid supporting skills into being a good starter as a senior. It’s hard to tell if this is coincidence or if there’s something to it. I’ve wondered if it’s been the result of players, particularly athletically limited ones, peaking in their junior years and not adjusting to teams preparing for them. But whatever those were, they absolutely pale in comparison to what’s happened to Brooks. Earlier in the season, he was benched for a few games, at least in part by his own request but also probably due to something not just clicking for him to start the season. At this point, it’s February, and he’s still struggling to help the team more than he hurts it. I don’t pretend to have an answer here, but I do think it’s worth acknowledging that among the biggest factors that hurt UNC today and have done so all season has been wearing #15.
2. Taking advantage of opportunities
The final score reflects this game pretty accurately overall, but it does obscure the fact that UNC had it well within reach until about 4 minutes to go. Having faced a 12-point halftime lead, they put some offense together and were within 4 points of Clemson just 6 minutes into the half... and then stayed there for about six more, not because Clemson was holding them at bay with buckets of their own, but because they just couldn’t finish the run. Some possessions were ended by turnovers, some by weak interior play, a couple were just unlucky, but all the while Clemson was giving them more opportunities by missing a couple of open looks or giving the ball back. One particularly frustrating sequence during this stretch was when R.J. Davis drove and missed a tough layup, which fell into the hands of Day’Ron Sharpe, who missed a makeable but not trivial putback, and then Brooks snagged that rebound and slammed the tip dunk off the back iron. The opportunity to cut the lead to just two points and renew momentum couldn’t have been more in hand, and yet the Heels fumbled it away. They’re not good enough a team to manufacture their own luck, at least not consistently. If they are to return to the expectations we had just of them just a week ago, they have to take advantage of what they’re given.
3. Chemistry is tough this year
A possibly underrated challenge that COVID-19 has imposed on this season is that a week off like UNC just had would normally entail some time to hang out with your team, take advantage of being in college, and have some stress-free bonding time that hopefully makes you understand each other better on the court as well as off it. This year, there’s no such thing as stress-free time as we navigate life during a pandemic, campus is more or less a ghost town, and hanging out, especially in places that aren’t where you live, is generally frowned upon. The basketball season this year, especially with teams that aren’t used to being together, has been all business: both in that it is transparently only being played for the interest of money that somehow still isn’t going to the players, and in that between the lack of crowds, the lack of offseason, and the lack of a college experience underlining it, this hasn’t been a fun season the way college basketball is supposed to be — I’d even go as far as to say everything likeable about college basketball has been sucked out by the extents the NCAA has gone to so that we could have a pandemic season. And I think we’re seeing the results of all that here. Caleb Love, early on in the game, sliced through the defense on a drive and then dished it nicely to Garrison Brooks, who was unprepared for it and fumbled a layup. Later, he put a hit-ahead pass into the arms of a streaking Andrew Platek, who apparently wanted to stress the Clemson defense more than he actually wanted to score, because he struggled to snag the ball and then traveled with it. Two easy assist opportunities, two turnovers. The veterans on this team seem to know that they should be deferring to the new guys, but they don’t really seem to know how, and the underclassmen, for their part, look like they’re still figuring out how to be adults in an adult world. College students all over the country have been bemoaning the fact that COVID-19 has taken a year and counting of what’s supposed to be among the most joyous times of their lives away from them. It’s worth remembering the same is true of college athletes.