To say the vibes of this season are different is an understatement.
Last year at this time, with a lot unknown between the new head coach and the transfers, every game felt like a life-or-death struggle, even when it shouldn’t. It’s easy to forget this now in the haze of the last month of the season, but the Tar Heels needed to figure a lot of stuff out at the beginning of last season, and it took until basically the first Duke game for them to start to get it together.
This year, there at least seems to be an understanding of the bigger picture despite the weighty expectations for a preseason #1. With the goodwill of last year and the understanding of the new pieces that need to be worked in, the games haven’t felt so life-or-death as they did. Last year there were serious concerns about whether the Tar Heels would win their first games, but this year, even while down, there never seemed to be that general feeling from the fan base. That feeling should continue tomorrow as the Tar Heels face down another tune-up opponent.
Here’s three things to look for tomorrow night against the Bulldogs:
A Complete Game
To be fair, you couldn’t have asked for two completely divergent styles to face in your first two games, with UNCW playing the slowdown full court press and College of Charleston just running at will. It’s good experience for the various styles the Tar Heels will face, but the fact remains that even in two wins, the Tar Heels have yet to play a complete game. The UNCW win was mostly a “blah” game where Carolina did just enough to get the victory, and the less said about the first half against Charleston the better.
It wasn’t until the second half against Charleston that we saw the Tar Heels we expected. Armando Bacot realized he had to be “a janitor” instead of a “CEO” and worked his tail off down low to get shots. Once the offense flowed through him they were off and running. Whether it was being punched in the mouth by a bunch of players who had no trouble letting Carolina know they weren’t scared, or it was just finally an extended period of time with starters playing, the second half seemed to finally click for everyone. The question is, can they do that to start a game? It’d be nice to put an overmatched squad out of the way early so Davis can experiment with lineups without having to worry about giving up a lead.
Right now, the Tar Heels are shooting a total of 23% behind the arc. It hasn’t bitten them yet for multiple reasons, and it really didn’t bite them on Friday since they shot 30-38 (that’s not a misprint) from two for 78.9%. To be able to stretch defenses and open up the lanes for Bacot, the shots from outside have to start falling.
The main culprit has been Caleb Love, who is only 2-13 from three so far. It’s been really encouraging to see that his cold streak behind the arc hasn’t affected the rest of his game, which feels night and day from this time last year. He’s 12-16 inside the arc, leads the team with six assists, and also leads the team with four steals. Beyond Love, no one else has more than seven attempts on the season, and it would be nice to see the ball go through the net for Love and the rest of the team there so that the Tar Heels don’t become one-dimensional.
If there’s one thing we learned last year, though, is that it can come in waves. Maybe this is the game that flips the script on that.
The Tar Heels only hit the 100-point mark once last year, but this Gardner-Webb squad comes in 0-2 with losses to Colorado State and Stephen F. Austin. Both opponents shot near 50% from the field and over that from behind the three-point line, and both opponents forced the Bulldogs into a combined 35 turnovers. Unlike their first two squads, Gardner-Webb is going to be road-weary and completely over-matched.
We’ve seen that UNC has had trouble getting up for a squad that doesn’t meet their level of competition, but hopefully the second half against Charleston was the inflection point where Carolina just gets out fast, steps on a team’s throats, and ultimately allows the entire bench to get into a game. No one on their squad is taller than 6’9, and there’s really no reason why Bacot can’t feast like he did on Friday night.
If we see the same effort to start the game that we saw against Charleston in the second half, go ahead and plan your breakfast at Bojangles on Wednesday morning.