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Tar Heel Blog Round Table: End of the regular season

The Tar Heel Blog staff gathers to answer questions about a season like no other.

Florida State v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

After a thrilling victory over Duke last Saturday, Carolina concluded a topsy-turvy regular season and prepares to play the winner of Wake Forest vs. Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament on Wednesday. With a brief pause in the action, now seemed an appropriate time to sit down and take stock of the regular season.

Hoping to make some sense of the chaos that was the 2020-21 college basketball season, the Tar Heel Blog writing staff gathered to discuss some of the topics of the season. This all-star cast had some common conclusions and varied ideas on what was and could have been. Since you have eight authors instead of one, this article does run a little long, so we encourage you to use the “audio article” feature to turn this into a podcast, or get comfy on your couch and enjoy the camaraderie.

Feel free to add your opinions to the discussion the comments section below.

Given the nature of the season, are you surprised that Carolina made it through an entire season relatively unscathed and are in a position to participate both in the ACC and NCAA Tournament?

Michael McKay (MM): That UNC was able to play even 75% of their schedule probably required seven miracles to happen simultaneously. I remember when UNC brought regular students back to campus and we promptly started having all of those Covid-clusters pop up around campus. It was frightening!

Credit goes to the program for keeping things tight, the video after the first Duke game not withstanding. As bad as the optics were, the players never did register a positive test, though they were definitely playing with fire. I do feel bad for the players having to endure this type of season. There’s no directions or guidelines to follow, everything was made as you go. It had to be terribly lonely and frustrating. I particularly feel bad for the seniors and any potential one-and-dones, never having a chance to run through the tunnel with a full crowd of students and blue hairs cheering you on and getting the Dean Dome rocking.

Max Sloan (MS): I’m impressed, to say the least. I’m almost surprised that the tournaments are happening at all, given how slowly positive change has taken place relative to the coronavirus. The word unscathed is a very apt one here, even outside of the scope of the pandemic. Injuries were mercifully far less of a story line in this season (he wrote while knocking on wood), and by that I am both surprised and relieved.

Al Hood (AH): Honestly, maybe I’m more surprised that there will be an ACC/NCCA Tournament rather that Carolina will be participating. We had the benefit of seeing the football team get it done to know it was possible, and Roy’s mindset is such that he was going to make sure he emphasized to them that if they are going to be on campus, they are going to play. The fact that they partied after the first Duke win and Roy was quick to address it and at the same time take a bullet for the guys was the final confirmation that they all were of the right mindset. The surprise for me, then, was in just how many other programs fell into the trap multiple times and possibly imperiled there being any sort of postseason. You can’t blame the kids, blame isn’t even the right word because we all know how pervasive this virus has become. In the end, hats off to them for sacrificing so much just so that we could be entertained. I do think that since they may be entering more of a bubble environment they may have one more surprise left for us all.

Akil Guruparan (AG): I’m never going to be convinced that college sports this academic year were a good idea, and I’m of at least half a mind that every college sport this season should have an asterisk on it. What we’ve seen hasn’t been college sports; the student-athletes have never felt less like students than they have this year being cooped up in hotels and their own rooms separate from campus, unable to experience the colleges they’ve signed up for to help them transition from kids to adults and being there solely for sports’ sake. Saturday’s announcing crew made that abundantly clear when they mentioned Roy Williams saying he didn’t think any of his freshmen could locate a dining hall on UNC’s campus, let alone any of their class buildings. COVID has wrought havoc on college experiences nationwide, but it’s made revenue sports feel downright cruel.

All that said, UNC’s football and basketball athletes deserve serious praise for keeping things as tight as they did. The basketball players’ one slip-up came during the biggest night of their lives, and that’s more than forgivable in my eyes. UNC played more of their games than almost anybody else in the ACC, which speaks to their discipline and some good luck. Here’s to hoping the postseasons don’t crash and burn...

Joe Carpenter (JC): I’m not surprised at all. Once the ACC and SEC decided to play football, the entire college sports landscape changed. That move forced the PAC 12 and Big 10 to backtrack on their earlier decisions and suddenly playing college sports was a norm instead of an exception. The NCAA simply had to find a way to make it happen.

Matt Ferenchick (MF): Like Akil, I always felt a little iffy about college sports happening at all, but they were always going to take place. I’m mostly glad that this team has mostly avoided cases, and will hopefully (knocking on anything wood I can find) get to play out this season on their own terms.

Brandon Anderson (BA): It’s hard not to be at least a little bit surprised considering how the game of basketball has to be played. Indoor facilities, close contact to opposing teams, and way more games than football had to participate in made this an extremely interesting situation. I think UNC did a masterful job of avoiding COVID, with the exception of that one incident that we really don’t need to revisit, and it’s great to see the ACC / NCAA Tournaments happening during a time in our society where things are starting to look better.

Jake Lawrence (JL): No, not really. Whatever moral or ethical quandaries one personally wrestled with (of which, I’m probably the outlier on this staff and had minimal issues with playing), there was never really a question on whether sports were going to happen at the power conference level. All UNC teams adjusted to that reality early because of the leadership in the athletic department.

Bubba is one of the best ADs in the country and clearly set expectations and standards to be followed. His job is made easier by having a litany of national champion coaches throughout the department who understand how to exercise discipline, motivate players to “buy in” to protocols, and the importance of setting the example as the flagship university. Yes, the players deserve credit, but 18-22 year old students don’t achieve those results without the adults actually being adults. That wasn’t the case at other universities.

How did this year’s team meet your expectations? Did they fall in line, fall short... they certainly didn’t exceed them, right?

MM: Again, a lot of what played out has to be taken with a grain of salt. If we’re in chemistry class, we can say that we’re not in a controlled environment anymore. Everything has changed.

I think in a season like this, experience mattered more than in any normal season. That’s why you saw teams like Gonzaga and Baylor succeed and dominate in many cases, and teams like Kentucky and Duke, which have grown fat and happy off the one-and-done pipeline struggle.

Carolina was somewhere in the middle. Jake had a great article that brought up how Carolina’s system thrives when it has a point guard that masters the offense. After Joel Berry graduated, Coby White thrilled, and Cole Anthony teased... the bill came due. I think both Caleb Love and RJ Davis have all the potential in the world, but they weren’t ready to be dropped into the arena and be told, “Go!” They needed a full summer and a preseason, followed by a few Northeastern-type games before heading to Maui.

Didn’t happen.

Still, I think I expected some more out of Bacot, much more out of Brooks, and maybe just a bit more out of Platek. I feel like I should be disappointed, but I think this fell in line with what we should be.

MS: I spent the two previous offseasons calling for Leaky Black to break out, and this offseason was no different. I think maybe next year I’ll call for someone else, and then he’ll become a world-beater. I expected more of a recovery, a Vince Carter bounceback versus a Kennedy Meeks. I don’t reckon I appreciated the difficulty of a rebuild, especially given the system that has been so successful for so long (a great point, as mentioned above). I also underestimated the benefits of a normal season, and the need for time that allows a young team to gel.

AH: I guess by the law of averages they fell in line. Carolina improved from a bottom tier team to a mid-tier team, about what you’d expect from a team with a massive amount of new faces in an odd year. They also had a ton of head scratching losses, but swept Duke in the regular season, beat Kentucky, and had the big win against Florida State. They were frustrating, but there was always hope with this team, something we couldn’t say by the end of last season. Thus, you take the global view it’s about what I thought. But man, what a bumpy road to get there.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina
“There was always hope with this team, something we couldn’t say by the end of last season.”

AG: A little short of expectations, I guess. I think I was expecting a borderline top-25 team, which I maintain was a possibility in a normal season — with Walker Kessler and Puff Johnson ready to contribute from the beginning rather than locked in hotel rooms for contract tracing, Caleb Love and R.J. Davis getting a full offseason to play against alumni, get conditioned, and really learn the Carolina offense rather than trying to figure it out on the fly, and the whole team playing together for more than, like, 6 practices before the season started. I don’t know if the overall down seasons from Brooks and Black would have been avoided or even ameliorated, but this team was always going to depend on how well its youth adjusted to college ball, and adjusting to this year has been downright impossible for anybody.

So the team’s chemistry never came together, Love and Davis have had up-and-down seasons as they’ve juggled different roles and lineups while learning the Carolina offense for the first time (and for Love, learning to play point guard at all), Kessler took until the last 3 weeks of the season to really figure out college basketball and still hasn’t quite established what his place in the rotation is (just 9 minutes against Duke?), and while this team has flashed how good it can be, like it did on Saturday, it hasn’t yet put more than two good games together in a row, which caps their ceiling pretty brutally. They have time to use Saturday as a springboard and threaten getting to the second weekend of the Big Dance like I thought they might during preseason, but right now, that looks like a tall ask.

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at North Carolina
“Love and Davis have had up-and-down seasons as they’ve juggled different roles and lineups while learning the Carolina offense for the first time.”

JC: From a pre-season expectation standpoint, they fell short in my view. This team has perhaps the most potentially dominant frontcourt in the country but that was not enough to make up for the weaknesses that I did not see coming; turnovers and free throw shooting. I did not expect great perimeter scoring but I did not think it would really be needed. On paper, this team should have shot the fewest threes of any Carolina team in the last 20 years, and yet shot selection was as questionable as ball-handling. Caleb Love just put too much pressure on himself to be a star. As the season has marched on, he has taken more of a support player role and has excelled.

MF: If you dug up our preseason predictions post, then they definitely fell short of what I picked there. Truth be told, I always tend to be a little over-optimistic on stuff like that. I more expected them to be a 2013-ish team: good enough to make the NCAA Tournament as a 7-10 seed, maybe could win a round, but will fall to the first team clearly better than them. They have a chance to prove part of that wrong, but other than that, I’m not super shocked by anything that’s happened. Maybe some of the annoying losses that that took have been worse than anything I thought they would do.

BA: I think this season amazingly met my expectations more or less. I’d say the one exception would be that I thought they had potential to end the regular season as a top-four ACC team, and instead they fell a bit short of that. I did think they were going to sweep Duke and would make the NCAA Tournament, so now the only thing they have to do to complete my prediction is make it to the Sweet Sixteen. It will be a very tough task considering the fact that they are still dealing with some issues that should’ve been gone by now (lots and lots of turnovers), but I still think they could pull it off somehow.

JL: The freshmen met, if not exceeded, all my expectations. What did people expect with six freshmen? (Which eventually became five after Puff’s injury). They were inconsistent, but as a collective unit improved throughout the season. To be fair, I never expected a Coby or Cole kind of performance out of Caleb or R.J. Their skillsets always warranted an “initiation” year. Ditto for Kessler and Sharpe, just because of the depth at the post. So maybe I was always a but less enthusiastic about their production.

Instead, I am surprised and disappointed at what appeared to be a lack on on-court leadership from the upperclassmen. Garrison Brooks has clearly struggled to find a role between “star” and “role” player. Leaky Black, though I think he does everything fans never see, has never seemed comfortable or confident for more than one game at a time. There is clearly some sort of chasm between the upper and underclassmen, and I think that’s the crux of their consistency issues.

What player was the most pleasant surprise?

MM: I mean, it’s not even a question, right? Kerwin Walton was the last signee, the lowest ranked, and became a starter for providing the one thing that no one else on the team could; consistent three-point shooting. It’s not hyperbole to say that Kerwin’s insertion into the starting line-up was no less transformative than when P.J. Hairston took over for Desmond Hubert. It changed the way Carolina could play. The post wasn’t as clogged since the defense couldn’t completely sag. It’s too bad Kerwin’s stroke can’t fix everyone else’s post entry passes.

MS: Kerwin Walton is my hero, but Walker Kessler showed flashes of an eye-popping brilliance.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 30 North Carolina at Georgia Tech
“Kerwin Walton is my hero...”

AH: Walton is the easy answer and his praises will be sung, so I’m going to go with Kessler. He started the season behind due to missing some practice and with all of the players trying to shuffle in and out, it really looked like this was going to be a lost season for him. But man, he turned it on at the end and legitimately looks like a solid foundation player for his UNC career. What is it about Roy finding these guys?

AG: It’s gotta be Walton, right? How long has it been since we had a purported shooter come into Chapel Hill and actually be a shooter right out of the gate? Of shooters who took threes with any kind of frequency, nobody in Roy Williams’ tenure at UNC has been as good a shooter as a freshman, and only Rashad McC**nts is even close. Williams has made comments about seeing his shooting mechanics when he got on campus and noting their unorthodoxy but deciding not to mess with them because they work, and I hope that’s a self-reflective teaching point for him moving forwards, even as I have some questions about his work with Love and Sharpe. Even better, after starting out the season as kind of just a park-and-shoot offensive player who wasn’t comfortable shooting off the dribble, attacking closeouts, or coming off movement, he’s developed his game over the course of the season to the point where he can shoot off some dribble moves, like that sick crossover of Joey Baker on Saturday, he’s mastered the art of either dribbling aside from or in past closeouts to get an open shot, and he’s starting to get more comfortable navigating screens to get to his shot, which is key to being a wing at UNC. If he can improve his mobility and defense, he’s going to be a legitimate star.

JC: Kerwin Walton. Not only has his shooting been a bright spot, but the team very much depends on him for its success. He did not reach double digit scoring in any of their last three losses. Let’s all hope he is out of his slump.

MF: Kerwin, duh.

BA: Kerwin Walton has easily been the biggest surprise. I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted that UNC’s success would depend so much on him, but this team will only go as far as he can get them in both tournaments with his ability to knock down shots from the perimeter.

JL: Sterling Manley. We knew Kerwin could shoot. It’s a great story. Cool. It’s not “wrong”.

But, I’m not sure we ever truly expected Manley to see the court again. Much less, finish an alley-oop dunk (from Platek!) on what should have been his senior night and then follow that up with a block on the other end of the court. All the feels, man.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina
“All the feels, man.”

What was the biggest “What if?” of the season?

MM: What if Iowa didn’t make 17 god damn three-pointers in our ACC/B1G match-up? If you look at that game, Carolina had good shooting splits when you compare them side by side with the Hawkeyes. Iowa shot 44.7% (FG), 42.5% (3PT ... on 40 attempts!!!), and 57.1% (FT) while UNC shot 47.7% (FG), 40% (3PT), and 60% (FT). As we’d learn later on in the season, that’s not a bad night shooting, and the Tar Heels put up 80 points!

They had a great plan for dealing with All-American Luka Garza and frustrated him greatly in the first half. Bacot fouled out, but that’s a price you’re willing to pay when you have four bigs to throw at a fulcrum like Garza. It was just tough to overcome one of the most insane three-point shooting expos I’ve ever seen in my life.

Carolina lost a tough one to Texas in the Maui Invitational finals, nothing to be discouraged about. Imagine the mojo they’d have if they had gone into Iowa and stolen a win? Remember, Iowa was #3 in the country at the time. Maybe the hiccups against NCSU and Georgia Tech don’t happen and we look at the trip to Florida State with a lot more appetite than fear.

MS: What if the Heels had had a full offseason to gel? I know I’m the most broken of records, but I don’t think it’s hard to overstate the benefit of all that time for a young, talented team to get to know each other. Maybe we see a true leader for this team establish themself early in the season, thereby dodging things like the headscratching loss to Marquette in which the team from Chapel Hill looked rudderless and all but begged for the kind of strong leadership we’ve come to expect from our upperclassmen. I realize that handwaving and wondering “What if the world hadn’t fundamentally changed?” is the lowest-hanging fruit, but I am genuinely curious.

AH: What if the Miami game after the first Duke game wasn’t postponed or what if Carolina was able to get another opponent? With no positive tests on this team, I’ll to this day believe the Canes used that party video as an excuse to try and rest up their guys and save a trip to Chapel Hill, and instead of building off their momentum from Durham they had to sit and rust up before the trip up to Charlottesville. Their rust was apparent as they couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn against the Wahoos, who wanted to give them the game. If Carolina goes into that game on a two game streak, maybe the inconsistency we saw the rest of the season doesn’t happen and they go into the post season ranked and in an even better position to make some noise.

AG: Well, Max took mine. Instead, I’ll ask, what if Walker Kessler had been available from the start of the season? Kessler’s come on really strong in the back half of the season and offered insurance for if one of his frontcourt teammates is struggling as well dimensions to his game that his teammates just can’t replicate, with his unique combination of height/length and skill. His issues coming into college were going to be his strength/conditioning and mobility on defense, and not being able to practice for four weeks to start the season as well as not having a normal offseason just delayed those issues from being cleaned up enough for him to be playable in Roy Williams’ eyes (who values strong rebounding, rim running, and defense above anything else in his bigs). With Garrison Brooks being invisible for large parts of the year and Day’Ron Sharpe becoming inconsistent after an incredible start as teams started to figure him out, I think Kessler being available would have made the UNC frontcourt a consistent killer with a variety of threats that could kill you a few different ways rather than an imposing but predictable force, which has been the downfall of this team in some of its worst moments.

JC: I will go one step further and say what if both Kessler and Anthony Harris were healthy all year. I had such high hopes for Harris off the bench and this team clearly needed both his leadership and his perimeter defense. Instead, his continued recovery limited his minutes and ability to contribute. Kessler is a star in the making and the more he plays, the better it is for the team.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at North Carolina
“Kessler is a star in the making and the more he plays, the better it is for the team.”

MF: What if this team had even some consistency, like at all.

BA: What if Walker Kessler and Puff Johnson never had to go into COVID protocols and could’ve played from start to finish? At the beginning of the season we had a lot of question about where the two freshman were, and it turns out that the answer was that they were abiding by the protocols put in place by UNC. Unfortunately I think that set Kessler back a good two months and Puff Johnson just never got going at all, and we will forever wonder what would’ve happened if they were able to go sooner. We at least have definitive proof that Kessler can be a game-changer when he’s on the floor, so I’m willing to believe that there’s not many losses that the Heels took that couldn’t have been erased thanks to his contributions.

JL: I’ll take a different approach. What if Armando Bacot could stay engaged for 30 minutes a game? He’s shooting 62.2% from the floor. If the season ended today, that would be the ninth best single-season shooting percentage in UNC history. It’s the third highest rate for a UNC sophomore, trailing only Rasheed Wallace and Mike O’Koren.

His overall +/- efficiency is 27.9, the highest of all major contributors. He leads the team in scoring at 11.7 ppg and is second in rebounding with 7.6 rpg. Per-40 projections estimate 21.0 ppg and 13.5 rebounds, good for first and third on the team. Yet, he only attempts 7.2 field goals per game even though UNC is 12-4 when he scores 10 or more points. They are 4-5 when he scores 9 or fewer.

This team will go as far as Armando wants to take them.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina
“This team will go as far as Armando wants to take them.”

Well there you have it folks! Thanks for taking the time to read and really digest the first Tar Heel Blog Round Table. Let us know what you think of our takes on the season and where you disagree. And don’t forget to put positive vibes into the universe as Carolina looks to win four games in four days to become ACC Tournament champions!