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UNC vs Virginia Tech: Three Things Learned

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The Hokies kept punching. UNC kept responding.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Virginia Tech North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Well that was fun. Last night, UNC earned a trip to the ACC Tournament semifinals with a crucial quad-1 win against a tough, physical Virginia Tech team. It was a complete team effort that relied on timely shooting, depth, and some maturity that has been lacking for much of this season. In other words, it looked like a traditional UNC team in March.

Much of the game had the intensity and drama of a second round NCAA tournament game with both teams trading baskets for much of the first 30 minutes of action. The Heels ultimately weathered the early storm by the well-rested Hokies, who only played four games in February. The win also meant that the ACC Coach of the Year (Virginia Tech’s Mike Young) lost his opening ACC Tournament game for the first time since 2017. That year, Josh Pastner’s 11th-seeded Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets lost to #14 Pittsburgh.

So, besides the odd warmth that emanates when the Heels beat the team from Blacksburg, here are three more things we learned in the big win.

Depth Matters

This seems obvious, but it is so often misunderstood. Roy plays so many players during the regular season specifically for nights like last night. The odd combinations, head-scratching patterns, and WHY IS HE IN THE GAME RIGHT NOW!? moments all build to this. They always have. As long as Roy is the coach, they always will.

Last night, Leaky Black was the only Tar Heel to play 30 minutes. Caleb Love played 26 minutes. Nobody else had more than 25 minutes, and nine players tallied 10+ minutes of game action. The Hokies did not have that luxury, as four players recorded 31, 35, 35, and 36 minutes. The results were noticeable throughout the game.

In the first half the Heels subbed four or five players at once and productivity increased. A four-player swap saw a RJ Davis-led second string steady a quickly sinking ship. Then, halfway through the first half, all five starters were simultaneously re-inserted and promptly took the lead. Virginia Tech was able to maintain a lead for much of that half because of their physicality and energy, but that quickly dissipated.

Those early substitutions paid dividends in the second half when UNC asserted their dominance inside. The Heels grabbed 13 offensive rebounds and scored 15 second chance points, after recording just two of each in the first period. They also out-rebounded the Hokies 27-17 in the second-half. For the game, UNC’s bench outscored VT 36-10.

Virginia Tech may have practiced during their COVID-induced pause, but nothing replicates running a train of big men into the paint for 40 minutes while playing at UNC’s fast-paced tempo. There’s a reason Roy likes this system. It works.

Bacot leads the way

We are probably past “learning” this little lesson, but this team will go as far as Bacot will take them. Yes, RJ Davis picked a great night to have a career night. Leaky Black hit shots at clutch moments. Day’Ron Sharpe is a physical freak. UNC doesn’t win without any of them.

Fine.

But, as I pointed out earlier this week in our Round Table, this team reaches a different level when Bacot is engaged and productive. He followed up Wednesday’s 20 and 13 performance, with another 17 points, 13 rebounds, and four blocks. At one point in the second half, he scored 10 straight points effectively breaking the Hokies’ spirit (even if RJ Davis stole their soul with this play).

The Heels are now 14-4 when Bacot scores 10+ points. In the past two games, he has 37 points, 26 rebounds, and five blocks. He is 14-19 from the floor in the ACCT and now has a season FG% of 63.3. That currently puts him at #7 on UNC’s all-time single-season list.

If Bacot is scoring, UNC can compete with almost any team in the country. If he isn’t they’ll lose to anyone. Like Marquette.

Brooks’ Role

After sitting out against Notre Dame due to an ankle injury against Duke, Garrison Brooks returned to the lineup last night. He promptly opened up the scoring with a mid-range jumper. All seemed right with the world. Then UNC didn’t hit a field goal for almost five minutes.

Some of that was helped by an over eager Hokie defense, and potentially lingering effects from his tender ankle. But, it’s also hard to ignore that he consistently struggled to gain position and convert on the offensive end. It’s equally difficult to turn a blind eye to the fact that it wasn’t a one-time occurrence. That has been a familiar sight all year long.

Brooks is having the least efficient season in his entire career across numerous metrics. An effective shooting percentage of 48.9% and ORtg of 107.0 aren’t exactly conducive to success. North Carolina has also been a considerably less efficient offensive team with him on the court.

Last season he grew into a dominant force with a couple of post moves, improved explosiveness at the rim, and Cole Anthony’s facilitating. This season has consisted of mid-range jumpers, increased turnovers, and noticeable frustration. For whatever reason, any trickle-down success from last season has been nonexistent.

Let me be clear: I do not think the Tar Heels are better without Garrison Brooks. There is nothing wrong with his playing time or position in the starting lineup. He is a valuable asset, and his DRtg of 97.2 is a career best. He also has recorded career highs in blocks and steals, despite just playing in 26 games.

So, perhaps, it’s fair to ask if this team is better when he plays a similar role to his first two seasons; a defensive specialist who executes on offense by being in the right place at the right time, and not creating too many of his own shots. With the season-long emergence of Bacot, Sharpe, and Kessler, there are enough offensive weapons that Brooks doesn’t have to try and carry a heavy load.

Keeping it simple in March may be the answer to a deep (surprising) run.