Blah. I’m not going to spend a lot of time with preamble, because I don’t want to restate the facts of that game just about as much as you don’t want to relive them. After a game in Chestnut Hill where the Heels looked like they’d finally learned to lock in and put away inferior competition, they traveled to South Bend against a Notre Dame team that hadn’t been much better than Boston College and, looking gassed at best and lackadaisical at worst, gave up a bad 73-78 loss to the Fighting Irish. Without sounding too many alarms, here’s what I’m taking away from this game:
1. Brady Manek isn’t a full-time 4
Manek, the Oklahoma transfer, has quickly endeared himself to Tar Heel fans thanks to his capable stroke from outside, his candor and attitude off the court, and a game that just oozes experience. There have been plenty questioning why he didn’t start over Dawson Garcia, whose game hasn’t been quite as aesthetically pleasing (though the results had been remarkably similar) — and after Garcia exited the game against Boston College early, Manek shone with the resultant extended playing time. On Wednesday, with Garcia still sidelined with a concussion, Manek started and played 33 minutes, but the results were not nearly as pretty. Although he’s a stretch four on the offensive end, Manek didn’t look at all prepared to defend on the perimeter in this one, getting victimized repeatedly when he switched onto perimeter players and didn’t step out to the three-point line to guard them. As the game continued, it only got worse — not only could he not keep up with guards, but even his assignment, Nate Laszewski, was bombing over him as he looked too fatigued to keep up - Laszewski ended up hitting 6/7 from long range. It wasn’t his night offensively, either, as he went 4/11 for 9 points, including 1/5 from deep. If nothing else, this game was evidence of how important Garcia is to this team, balancing Manek’s weakness as a perimeter defender and giving him time to rest so he can be more effective while not providing a drop in production in his own right.
2. This team goes as Caleb Love goes
It was a rollercoaster of a game for Love. After an early midrange jumper to get things going, he was more or less invisible for the rest of the first half, not finding his scoring opportunities or playmaking lanes the way he has been for most of the season. On defense, he was an early victim of Blake Wesley’s scoring outburst, dying way too easily on screens and letting him have 13 first-half points. While Armando Bacot put in an outstanding individual effort to keep the Heels within 4 heading into the half, the team’s collective energy was listless and the gap felt wider. In the second half, after the two teams traded buckets for a couple of minutes, Love was pulled in favor of D’Marco Dunn, and the Heels promptly gave up an 8-3 run to go down 13. Love came back in and was immediately a different player, getting a steal off a floor burn and getting rewarded with a three-pointer as part of an 8-0 run in response. There was some more back-and-forth, but eventually, it was a one-possession game, with UNC having had the briefest of leads before a Laszewski three erased it. Then, Bad Caleb showed up, with a turnover, a questionable offensive foul, and a YOLO turnaround jumper miss all in the space of about 90 seconds down the stretch, and the Irish capitalized on just enough possessions the other end (including two more Laszewski triples) to re-extend the lead and put the game ultimately out of reach. A lot of things were going wrong that weren’t Caleb Love, so the loss certainly isn’t on him. But either he’s got to be much better or the rest of the team (minus Bacot) has to figure out a way to complement him rather than riding with him.
3. Depth is important
It’s an unfortunate side effect of playing a 7.5-man rotation the way that Davis has been this season - you lose 2 men (Garcia being one, Kerwin Walton and Justin McKoy each generously counted as halves) and suddenly you’re more or less asking 6 guys to play the whole game. That’s pretty much exactly what happened. R.J. Davis played a staggering 39 minutes, Bacot played 36, Love and Manek played 33, and Leaky Black played 30. Anthony Harris came in as support for 18, and the freshmen D’Marco Dunn and Dontrez Styles played 17 combined. There wasn’t much room for comfortable adjustments once it was clear that switching everything wasn’t working because Davis wasn’t comfortable enough with enough of the available rotations to pull off defensive tweaks and there wasn’t much opportunity to throw something different (and effective) at Notre Dame because the scoring threats never really changed. You can’t do much about a concussion and two players in Covid protocols, not to mention the ghost of Puff Johnson yet to become corporeal, but that’s what building good depth can do for you — mitigate the effects of unforeseen circumstances. There’s a tradeoff the other way; Davis might say playing a shorter rotation has won UNC early games they might have dropped if he’d been more focused on getting more guys PT, and with as much roster turnover as he’s got on this team, a shorter rotation has also meant easier identification of what lineups/combos work and what don’t. It is what it is — we’ll see if this loss becomes a key data point as Davis’ coaching career continues into future seasons and he continues to decide how he wants to handle various decisions.