If anybody ever needed the definition of “winning ugly” in college basketball, I think the Tar Heels executed the perfect ugly win game against Ohio State. While their shooting performance left a lot to be desired, they were able to get to the free throw line quite a bit, they led in rebounding, and they scored 27 points off turnovers. It’s also worth noting that they did all of this with Armando Bacot being 70% (his words, not mine), Puff Johnson hurting himself in the first half, and a decent amount of foul trouble. It’s easy to see why UNC shouldn’t have won this game, but it’s also easy to see why they earned the W against the Buckeyes.
Let’s take a look at three things that we learned from the Tar Heels’ performance at the CBS Sports Classic.
Caleb Love is starting to figure it out
Before I am chased off of the internet with pitchforks, hear me out: I think Caleb Love is starting to show some growth with this team. The junior guard is a rather polarizing player when it comes to Carolina fans, and a lot of his decision-making doesn’t do him any favors when it comes to the level of criticism that he gets. However, I think it’s time for us to admit that he’s at least trying to make better decisions, and we saw it pay off in yesterday’s game.
Love finished the game with 22 points, four rebounds, seven assists, and just two turnovers. Sure, his three-point shooting numbers are still bad, and he wasn’t without his trigger-happy moments, but think about that assist-to-turnover ratio for a moment: Love was +5 for the afternoon, which was the highest on the team. It isn’t just about the numbers themselves either, because if you watched the game you saw a very unselfish, intelligent player at times, and that guy was one of the most dangerous players on the court.
Love still had a number of rough moments, and I’d even argue that there were a couple of decisions that led to the Heels having to go to overtime. However, I do believe in giving credit where credit is due, and I hope that he will continue to evolve into the guard that we all know he’s capable of being.
Hubert Davis coached his best game of the season
One under-the-radar factor of UNC’s season so far is that Hubert Davis has been willing to take risks with his coaching decisions. To this point in the season, Davis has abandoned playing his starters into the ground in favor of giving his bench more minutes, which has had varied results. We also saw him giving players a rather loose leash when it comes to play-calling, and some of those results have been downright scary in a not-so-good way. However, Davis had full control of his team in the second half and in overtime against the Buckeyes, and what we saw was their most impressive performance of the season.
Coming out of halftime, it felt like the Heels’ energy changed. Davis stated after the game that he got loud with the team, and apparently that sparked some fight in the players. Strategy-wise, he had UNC trapping Ohio State when they were attempting to inbound the ball, and got a couple of turnovers in doing so. He also let Jeff Lebo draw up the play that led to Nance drilling the game-tying shot at the buzzer in the second half, which Nance himself said was designed to use Bacot and Love as decoys.
Here’s the play Jeff Lebo drew up in the huddle.— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) December 18, 2022
He saw Penn State run something similar earlier this year and tried it on a whim.
Armando Bacot and Leaky Black almost bailed on it.
Then Pete Nance shot Leaky a look—and the Garden burst. pic.twitter.com/mBkAnpbFIA
There are undoubtedly more moments to point to, but the moral of the story is that Davis proved that he can get what he needs out of these guys, and if he can pull it out of them on a night-to-night basis, I think this season will finally get back on track.
Three-point shooting is still broken
Alright, so this isn’t exactly a new lesson that we have learned in watching the Tar Heels, but it is something that needs to be discussed. Piggybacking off of what Hubert Davis did right in this game, I feel like the Heels had a lot of good shooting opportunities that they weren’t able to convert. There was a lot of ball-screen action that got some of Carolina’s shooters open on the perimeter, but ultimately they weren’t able to knock down most of them. They finished the game shooting 21% from three-point land off 6-28 shooting, with Love knocking down four of the makes. Not great, Bob.
The most frustrating thing about shooting woes is that there really isn’t a great fix. The obvious thing to point to is that there was still some bad shot selection — we still saw some NBA-distance threes attempted, and a few shots where players just tried to beat Buckeyes players off the dribble. However, there were numerous times where Nance, Black, Davis, and Love were open on the perimeter, but they just weren’t able to finish. The good news is that Hubert Davis knows a thing or two about shooting, so it’s possible that he could help his guys get out of this funk that they are in. However, it’s much more likely that this is an unfixable slump, and that this team is going to have to get comfortable winning games in the fashion that they did yesterday.