It’s fair to say that after a disappointing effort on Wednesday combined with seven straight losses to UVA, optimism wasn’t high going into Saturdays game against the Wahoos. Still, you hoped that the first ACC home game and the first home game in nearly three weeks would be enough to motivate Carolina .
Boy did it.
In arguably their best effort against Virginia since 2017, the Tar Heels dominated and showed the ACC they will be a force, as long as they want to be. We’ll get to that.
Let’s see what we learned about Carolina in their 74-58 win over the Cavaliers.
Armando Bacot is in the ACC Player of the Year Discussion
Despite being a school that is known for producing talent down low, how rare is it for someone to put up a 20 point and 20 rebound effort?
Inside Carolina’s Sherrell McMillan has your answer:
Tyler Zeller, Brice Johnson, Sean May, Armando Bacot.— Sherrell D. McMillan (@RellDMC) January 8, 2022
Those are the only four since Roy Williams was named the head coach back in 2003 to have accomplished the feat. Johnson was the last to do it six years ago, against FSU in 2016 with his 39/23 effort.
A great way to get yourself into the POY discussion is to have a big game in the biggest moment, and being the featured game on ESPN with their “A” crew is about as big a moment as you’ll get right now. After a second half where the Tar Heels struggled to get Bacot the ball on Wednesday, they didn’t make that mistake on Saturday. Bacot was all around the rim, feasting on the fact the Wahoos couldn’t use their pack line on two big men and instead had to respect Brady Manek on the arc. He just seemed to be at the right place and the right time on every play, and the Tar Heels as a whole made sure the offense ran through him as much as possible.
Bacot not only did this on the floor but seemed to do so after acknowledging he and the team just didn’t have its top effort on Wednesday. It’s something to say considering how much he dominated on Wednesday, but that he backed it up is a good sign for the type of games he’s going to play from here. Not many teams have the talent to guard a Bacot down low, and with the stretch fours UNC has teams are either going to have to commit to doubling him or let him have his points. It’s a dangerous approach, and one that will likely lead to several more eye-popping games for the junior.
Patience is Rewarded
Carolina assisted on 50% of their made field goals on Saturday, and a lot of that was because of the offense making several passes to find the open player. Bacot was the beneficiary of a lot of this, but Caleb Love also scored 16 when the Cavs had to leave him on a one-on-one matchup, and Brady Manek poured in 19 because of the pack line nature of the Cavs’ defense. Even RJ Davis, who was 0-10 shooting, found other ways to contribute with boards, steals, and assists.
Part of the reason Virginia beats you is when you are so eager to score on them, it forces you into a bad shot. On Saturday, Carolina carved up the pack line specifically by moving the ball around and spacing their sets to the point where Virginia had to double players like Anthony Harris and Leaky Black, not exactly great shooters, and those guys were skilled enough to get the ball to the open play. More than that, though, there were several instances where if a guy just had a one-on-one matchup, he’d pass it off to find where the Tar Heels had the mismatch. This may not be a national contender of a Virginia team, but to see this formula work so well in their only meeting this year is a good sign of how the future Tar Heels teams under Davis will handle the Cavs.
When the Heels Care, They Win
There will be games this season where the team will “care” but come up close, likely one or both of the Duke games, but if there has one thing that has been painfully apparent this season is that how much this Tar Heel group is engaged will dictate their likelihood of whether they’ll win.
Both Love and Bacot talked after Wednesday’s game about how their effort wasn’t there and they waited too late to get fully engaged with the Irish. We’ve seen how they’ve just fallen flat against Tennessee and Kentucky, just flat out giving up when they didn’t want to be there. On Saturday, they clearly wanted to set a tone, and you could see how engaged they were on offense and defense.
It’s maddening, then, when you see this team that could be better than its 11-4 mark, but with a new coach replacing a hall of famer and several transfers and new faces, it’s easy to understand the hiccups along the way. The question is if the Tar Heels will show this same amount of effort against a Georgia Tech team they’ve already beaten, or if the week off will create a situation where they again assume they can just sleepwalk through a game. With the strength of the conference, too many games where they sleepwalk could lead to a pretty low NCAA seed and a short run.