...These things seem only happen to UNC, right? After a positive COVID-19 test in Duke’s locker room, the Blue Devils forfeited their ACC Tournament quarterfinal match to Florida State, giving the Seminoles the hitherto unheard-of ACC Tournament triple bye. And, of course, gearing up to play them for what will be their third game in three days are the UNC Tar Heels, coming off an absolute dogfight against Virginia Tech. The teams split their regular season contests, each winning at home, and there’s always a little extra spice to an ACC Tournament rubber match. Here are three things to look out for as the Heels try to make it to the ACC Tournament finals for the first time since 2018:
After a couple of really excellent defensive games against Duke and Notre Dame that pushed their Kenpom defensive rating up to tops in the ACC, UNC came back down to Earth a little bit against Virginia Tech, as Tyrese Radford and Justyn Mutts both tore up the Heels through a combination of their own explosiveness and skill and Mike Young’s creative offensive sets (although the Heels, at #16 in the country, are still tops in the ACC in defensive efficiency). The pair finished 18/29 from the field, with Mutts going 3/5 from deep. UNC’s bigs were able to limit 2nd Team All-ACC member Keve Aluma to 9 points on 13 shots, which may have been just enough to outpace the Hokies. The Seminoles have a litany of threats, too, including M.J. Walker, who tore the Heels apart in the first matchup, Raiquan Gray, who took it to them in the second, and ACC Freshman of the Year Scottie Barnes, who was a brief spark in the second matchup and has been killing teams all season. Maybe UNC can get away again with focusing on one star and trying to outscore the remainder, but that makes you about as likely to see a repeat of this year’s Iowa game as you are to see the second FSU contest. More important is going to be the way that Tar Heel teammates cover for and trust each other: Rotations have to be on point, wing defenders can’t leave their covers because they don’t trust their bigs to be rim protectors or because they see a steal that has never materialized, and guards cannot get beaten off the dribble. Caleb Love, Leaky Black, and Garrison Brooks can all be great individual defenders at times, but against a team with multiple threats like FSU, UNC can only be as good as its weakest link on defense.
Who steps up this time?
After a regular season where the Heels were pretty much alternately carried by either one of Armando Bacot and Day’Ron Sharpe or Kerwin Walton, the month of March has seen several Heels step up to the plate to take over games for the Heels. Caleb Love went nuclear against Duke again and Garrison Brooks turned into a jump-shooting sniper, Walker Kessler capped off a string of impressive performances with a breakout game against Notre Dame, and R.J. Davis took up the scoring mantle last night against Virginia Tech. Those performances alone have to give you some hope for March if you’re a Tar Heel; Love and Davis playing well, especially when their jump shots fall, takes pressure off Walton to be the team’s only shooting threat and Kessler allows for a little more room for error on the part of Sharpe and Bacot, who can’t be great every game. If all three can get to their peak form more regularly, UNC looks a lot better.
But it seems like some Heels still haven’t fully been unlocked yet this year. Anthony Harris, for example, has flashed plenty since his return, but hasn’t really put a game together since he started getting regular minutes. A lot of his impact is hustle and defense and doesn’t show up in the box score, but he’s also shown himself to be a capable driver, at least passable shooter, and a good playmaker, and being able to use all of that to help take over a game would be huge. Leaky Black has had some jack-of-all-tradesey games alongside some where he hasn’t done much of anything, but even the former of those have felt pretty underwhelming. I’m not asking for a triple-double from him; he doesn’t see enough usage for that. But consistent 7-7-5 or so games shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for him, and would make a huge difference. Can they follow their teammates into good consistency? If so, a game against one of the ACC’s premier teams would be an excellent place to see it.
Conditioning and Recovery
The UNC-Virginia Tech game was a physical one. According to Adam Lucas, several players had to get treated by trainer Doug Halverson during the game just for having been collided with; that’s how hard the Hokies were taking it to the Heels (and vice versa, particularly in the second half). Obviously, a physical game takes a delayed toll on an athlete’s body, so it’s fair to wonder how well rested it’s possible for UNC to be less than 24 hours after the end of their last game. But something that might go overlooked is that while it was a physical game for the Heels, it might not have been the most taxing, thanks to the depth that Roy Williams has on his roster: 10 Heels played in yesterday’s game, and only one, Leaky Black, played more than 26 minutes (he played 30). Andrew Platek played just five, but the rest all played at least 10, as Williams cycled through his players constantly to find lineups that worked, manage fouls, and, as we’re seeing here, save some of his players’ stamina for the game they might be playing the following day. Williams prides himself on how well he gets teams conditioned and ready for the rigors of a college basketball season, and no part of the season is more rigorous than the postseason, with games scrunched together. Particularly with a team as young as this one, this game is going to be a test of how well they’ve acclimated to being college athletes. Because of that minutes management, it’s nowhere near an impossible task in my eyes, but it will be a challenge to match the energy of a good team that hasn’t yet played an ACC Tournament game this year.