It’s really cliché to say, but the reason it’s a cliché is because there’s truth to it: death, taxes, and Roy Williams teams clicking in time for the NCAA Tournament. Even though 2021 had gotten us to expect the unexpected, some things will always remain true. These last few days proved one of them: Roy Williams can still coach.
We should have known better. There’s a reason this coach just passed Bob Knight on the all-time list of wins, after all.
Each day after the tournament we’ve given you the things we learned about Carolina in each game, but this is more of a global view about what we learned overall. Maybe these will be reminders, but in this oddest of years it’s not a bad thing to have some things drilled back into your head.
With that, let’s talk about what we learned.
Armando Bacot and Kerwin Walton Will Dictate How Far UNC Goes
You may not have noticed because of how Kessler was close to a triple-double against the Irish, or how Caleb Love seemed to continue his hot play from Duke, or even how RJ Davis seemed to be picking up the offense more and more, but had Carolina won the ACC Tournament the Everett Case MVP would have been Armando Bacot, and it wouldn’t have been close.
Bacot has had a frustrating season, seeming to disappear at times and not use the big frame he has to score points around the basket. He also seemed to be someone who was a target for teams to foul as he couldn’t consistently hit from the free throw line. Yet, all he did was score 49 points over the three games and be the leading score for two of the three contests, all while pulling down 32 rebounds. Carolina’s offense was noticeably stronger when he was on the floor, regardless of who the other big was. It helped that he was paired with Brooks most of the time, and Brooks took a more supplementary role, but his skill down low has been a huge turn for the Tar Heels.
Perhaps the biggest sign of how much the team needs Bacot on the floor came in the first half of the Florida State game. He picked up his second foul with a little over nine minutes left, and Williams opted to sit his big man for the rest of the half rather than risk him getting his third. The offense was noticeably stagnant the rest of the half, allowing FSU to turn a nine point lead into a thirteen point advantage quickly. Once the second half started, the Tar Heels cut that lead to four within the first four minutes, forcing Leonard Hamilton to take a timeout. Bacot ultimately went 11-17 at the line, his worst game being the VT game, which made it a good sign that he was able to go 2-3 against FSU.
Kerwin Walton on the other hand is clearly at the top of the scouting report for teams looking to beat Carolina now, and it’s showing in his hesitancy to take some shots early on. Still, when he’s on the floor defenders have to account for him, which leaves players like Caleb Love and RJ Davis at least a little room to operate if they can hit their shots. Lately, both of them have been doing just that, but Walton still needs to make some in order to keep defenders honest.
Overall the team is the best when those two are on the floor, going +18 when they were both out there versus -16 when they were both on the bench against FSU. If one or both struggle or get into foul trouble in any tournament game, the chances Carolina moves on to the next round become slim.
The Marquette Game Was Not a Mistake
This. Team. Needed. Games. I’ve had two pieces out trying to compare the actual number of games played from prior teams with freshmen point guards to this one. All of it was predicated on this: Roy Williams coaches November differently than December, which is different from January, February, and March. The more new pieces he has, the more he uses those games prior to March to experiment with lineups and figure out who can play, who needs work, and then adjust practices to match. Yet with 2021 just wrecking absolute havoc on the schedule, he couldn’t see things come together the same way.
He’s still experimenting in some ways, which in any other season would be a huge red flag, but this season it’s simply a case of continuing to tinker with a lot less time to see how it works. Williams used a three-guard lineup a lot over the past three days with Anthony Harris, Caleb Love, and RJ Davis. With Harris being the most experienced and closest to a pure point guard on the floor, the move seemed to free up Love and Davis from some of the ball handling responsibilities and got them more comfortable in their game. Unfortunately, Harris’ inexperience due to injuries and the shortened season showed up in a big way when he committed the over help and left FSU wide open for the three-point shot that gave them the lead for good. In a “normal” year, he would have tried this lineup sooner but he just ran out of time.
That’s why the Marquette game, even a horrible loss, wasn’t a mistake to schedule. Williams was able to get a point across to the team about how they can’t take the good things for granted, and they responded with the amazing win against FSU. Now, did they turn around and lose to Syracuse? Yes, but there’s a lot of “one off” nature to that game in terms of having to play against a zone, a quick turn around, and so on. After that game, the Tar Heels played four straight good to great games. Make no mistake, FSU is a good team that is a tough matchup for this team on a normal night, and with them getting a full week off and the motivation to avenge two weeks ago, it would have taken a Herculean effort to beat them again.
Even though this team will run out of time, at least they can go into the NCAA’s focusing more on smaller things like the end of game offense and movement to free up shooters. That only happens with more games played, and those messages only come across when you lay a huge egg that you did against a team like Marquette. It also bodes well for 2021-22, depending on who comes back. The team finally has actual building blocks to where they can be scary...quickly.
Most Teams Don’t Want to See UNC In Their Pod
The Tar Heels are going to be that team that any high seed sees and says, “Oh &%#!, really?” Unlike a lot of teams that’ll be in the 7/8/9/10 area, the Tar Heels are playing their best basketball at the best time. They seem to accept the one-and-done nature of the time of year they are in, and since the NCAA Tournament is being played in a bubble, a lot of the issues with playing on the road that they’ve run into shouldn’t be as big an issue. They also have shown a fight and a resilience against tough teams, continuing to explode in the second half after keeping a team close to them in the first.
In a normal year, low seeds make it to the Final Four because of upsets and fortunate draws. Just look back at Loyola-Chicago and Syracuse. In a format where teams will have a short time to prepare for the Tar Heel attack, combined with the fact that few teams will have the strength down low to compete with what the Tar Heels can run at them, there’s every bit of reason for some optimism that this team could make a 2000-type run deep into the tournament.
There’s also recent history showing that they could easily lose by 15-20 against their first round matchup, so anything is on the table. That said, in a year where the NCAA is going to try to make up for the missing tournament last year and geography won’t be a factor at all due to the bubble, don’t be surprised if Carolina’s potential second round opponent is a made for TV matchup. We’ll know for sure a little after 6 PM tonight.