If Carolina is still on the bubble, games like yesterday’s 94-74 throttling of Florida State can’t be taken for granted. Thanks to Michigan finally getting their season into fourth gear, UNC was the proud owner of a Quad 1 win before the Wolverines were taken down by Ohio State. Their saving grace to the Tournament committee? No losses to inferior teams. But the whole equation gets thrown off if the Heels slip up against any of the ACC’s bottom rung.
To that end, the performance Carolina put on Saturday was exactly how they need to finish out the regular season. If they can bottle some of that up, mix it up with some rivalry magic and beat Duke in Coach K’s final home game, then they have a decent chance to make the tournament. They could even make some noise with the right matchups.
Here are three things learned from an intriguing (and eye-opening) win over FSU.
Fast break opportunities
One thing Carolina fans have had to adjust to is a slower offense. Hubert Davis has not emphasized pushing the ball up the court the way Roy Williams did during his tenure in Chapel Hill. Consequently, fast break points have been at a premium this season.
During ACC play, the Tar Heels average just 8.6 fast break ppg, and if it weren’t for some big blips against Georgia Tech in Atlanta (15 points) and NC State (25 points), that average would be much lower. Part of this could be lack of emphasis on Carolina’s part, but often we’ve seen other teams cede the offensive glass in order to get back on defense. Chalk that up to PTSD from Roy’s hey-day, maybe.
Yesterday, UNC used good defense to initiate the fast break. The Seminoles had 13 turnovers (seven from steals!) that the Heels converted into 20 fast break points. Carolina has good offense, especially at home, but getting easy buckets off of turnovers is a great way to protect yourself from a bad shooting night, especially on the road (or in a neutral venue).
Pay attention to the fast break sequences in the video below. One additional note from the second and third possessions—Armando Bacot channels his inner-Kennedy Meeks and throws some beautiful downcourt passes. This is a new twist that warrants further monitoring:
Bench production ramping up
With the news that Dawson Garcia is not returning this season (prayers up for his family!), Hubert Davis didn’t get the good news we were hoping for, but he did get clarity.
Armando Bacot and Brady Manek will be relied on to play heavy minutes, but Davis knows he cannot grind their bones into dust, especially if Carolina needs a win (or more) in the ACC Tournament. Against Clemson, Bacot was able to get some rest thanks to his foul trouble, but Manek still played 37 minutes. You’ll notice he laid up the game winner instead of 360-dunking it.
Against Florida State, Manek was able to look upon his works, smile, then cheer with the bench. Why? Because Dontrez Styles and Puff Johnson provided quality backup minutes (16 and 11, respectively). They even provided something that UNC’s bench hasn’t done a great job of for most of the season: bench points. Styles had 8, Johnson had 5 (including a 3-pointer). Combined with Kerwin Walton’s 9 points (2-4 from distance) in 16 minutes of action, Carolina is starting to heat up with March just around the corner.
Hubert Davis will need bench options to combat matchup problems and to spell his starters in the event of fatigue, injury, or foul trouble. The rising tide of his bench can lift all ships, especially Brady Manek, who gets targeted on defense a lot, and Bacot, who commits silly fouls too often.
Caleb Love from downtown
What Caleb Love has accomplished so far during his sophomore season is quite astonishing. His three-point shooting improvement has been fantastic, rising from 26.6% last season to 42.3% this year. Against Florida State, he was 6-8 from downtown, and his team-high 18 points all came from the trifecta.
Here’s the rub, though. He was 0-4 inside the arc, including a breakaway dunk attempt caught on the rim that would have given Roy Williams one of his vertigo fits. Yikes!
"I caught a flat tire." @caleb2love may have missed a chance at a monster dunk, but he was lights out from three. Career high 6 three's in a 94-74 @UNC_Basketball win over #FSU. Why Love and #UNC s ability to bounce back has been key for the Tar Heels this season. pic.twitter.com/Dm0KsR9k4v— Pat Welter WRAL (@PatrickWelter) February 12, 2022
Love is in an odd place statistically, shooting better from the three-point line than inside it (6.7% worse). Too often Caleb drives to the basket without getting past his man, forcing him to shoulder into the defender’s body. When fouls aren’t called, it’s a tough shot to make. Fair play to Love though, he’s an excellent free-throw shooter (83.3%), so when he does get calls, he’s putting up points for the Heels.
I don’t know if Caleb Love’s finishing at the rim can be drastically improved this season, but one thing I have noticed is his growing court chemistry with Brady Manek. Love dished out two of his six assists to Manek at the rim (one lay-up, one dunk). That chemistry continues following their best connection of the season earlier in the week at Clemson.
Hopefully this trend continues well into March.