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UNC 72, Syracuse 68: Three Things Learned

Some reflections on a hectic, pretty ugly road win

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Wow, I hated that.

The UNC Tar Heels’ trip to the arena formerly known as the Carrier Dome felt closer than it should have been for its duration, but despite the Heels losing their 38-minute lead late, Pete Nance picked up a loose ball off his own missed free throw and scored UNC’s only second-chance points of the game to put his team ahead for good, as they’d eventually win, 72-68. With a long 8-day break between this and the Heels’ next game, let’s reflect on some of the things I think we can take away from the Heels’ win against Syracuse:

1. Getting Out With A Road Win

In his first two years as a head coach, perhaps just as a way to ease himself into coaching or perhaps as an actual choice, Hubert Davis has not been scheduling the same kind of non-conference slate that Roy Williams was known for — last year’s nonconference schedule contained just a single independently scheduled road game, at College of Charleston, and this year’s didn’t have any. It was in part due to this that UNC only had a single road win, at Portland, coming into Tuesday night, and some of the losses have been ugly. So my primary reaction to this game isn’t really anything about the game itself, but more that it’s just a load off our collective backs to see this team get its first road win in conference. The environment was hostile, the home cooking was potent for about 7/8 of the game, and the hosts upped their game from what they’ve been doing all season, but the Heels made enough mini-runs to keep the Orange at arm’s length for most of the game, and even though they couldn’t really every put their opponents away, they found ways to get stops when they needed and, ultimately, to not put themselves in losing positions. They played with poise and battled through a lot, and a lot of different kinds, of adversity, including elbows to the face, a bunch of tough shots going in through good defense, and a pretty tight press towards the end of the game. Navigating that and coming out with the win has to give this team something it didn’t have before, with a trip to Durham right over the horizon.

2. A bench situation thrown newly into flux

I think we’ve gotten a solid feel for how Hubert Davis is going to be using his bench this year — rather than have set substitutions for players or player groups, he seems to prefer using his subs to attack matchups on the other end of the floor. If they’ve got a thin or suspect backcourt, Seth Trimble and D’Marco Dunn see more time. If Davis thinks he’s going to win a game by banging around the basket, we’ll see more of Puff Johnson and Jalen Washington. He may bring Dunn, Johnson, and/or Nickel in if he needs shooting, and Trimble is his go-to guy for increased defensive pressure on the perimeter. Unfortunately, Johnson has missed the last couple of games with a sore knee, which has thrown a couple of those things into flux. Davis was clearly committed to playing two bigs so he could beat the zone playing high-low in the post the way some of UNC’s most fun victories against Syracuse have gone, but the roster’s really only got one player other than starter Pete Nance who can play the 4 for extended minutes, and that’s Johnson (Dontrez Styles seems like he could as well, but clearly hasn’t earned Davis’ trust in practice this year). You also want shooters against a zone if only to spread it out, and Johnson, even if he hasn’t always been a reliable shooter, definitely has the requisite shooting gravity.

Without him, the bench usage in this game was a little odd. Pete Nance played all 40 minutes as the only big who could play high and low post, and several of the lineups that Davis rolled out had two or more non-shooters on the perimeter, nullifying the threats to the Syracuse’s zone from the outside. Something like Trimble/RJ Davis/Leaky Black/Nance/Washington is a generally good lineup and probably has plus efficiency on the year for the Heels, but when you’re playing your bench according to matchup, that can’t be the way you think about who you’re putting out there. Hopefully Johnson is back soon, but if this knee bothers him longer, Hubert Davis is going to have to do a mini-reset on how he imagines his bench players on the court. This could involve more small-ball with Tyler Nickel, who’s got some size and played a useful 12 minutes — he scored a three, had a highlight-reel chasedown block, played solid defense, and led the team in +/-.

3. College refereeing continues to be absolutely unfathomable

Look, I know it’s beyond beating a dead horse to talk about the state of college basketball officiating this year, but last night’s game was just egregious. Caleb Love had two charges called on him early on the perimeter — the first might have been legit, the second was purely of the “run in front of somebody and fall down” type that should be drawing a tech this season. Soon after, Joe Girard dragged his pivot foot about a yard before passing behind him for a three that went in. RJ Davis was swiped at and then tripped on a fast break run-out attempt and nothing was called, leading to a turnover. On his next fast break attempt, Girard grabbed his foot from behind, and while a foul was called, it wasn’t even looked at for a flagrant, being absolutely not a basketball play. And those were just the obvious things in the first half — it sure looked like there was a lot of uncalled contact in the post against Armando Bacot, but we’re not close enough to that action to see, so maybe that was called right. Then, it was awful in a whole different way in the second half, where fouls were called on both ends that hadn’t been called in the first, plus some silly stuff like Bacot being blatantly and obviously shoved out of bounds right in front of a referee and getting charged with a turnover, and a couple of calls that went UNC’s way, including a drawn charge by Davis. I’m a UNC fan, so those are the things I notice. A Syracuse fan might point instead at the 23-3 free throw disparity, favoring UNC (though I’m not sure a jump shooting team can really make that claim), and the questionable foul called at the end of the game on Caleb Love’s defender on an inbounds play. Whatever your perspective, though, nobody is happy with how this game was officiated, and it turned a pretty exciting game into an absolute slog by the end of it, with nobody sure how to play to the officials and a lot of pivotal moments being left up to fate because of it.

Primarily, I think broadcasts need to hold these moments more accountable. There were plenty of clearly questionable moments that didn’t get replays or even a second mention by the team of Rece Davis and Debbie Antonelli, including Love’s two charges, Bacot being shoved out of bounds, Davis getting fouled in transition, Girard’s huge travel, and even that foul on Love at the end that turned a 2-point game into a 4-point game got nothing more than a single replay from the worst possible angle to get anything definitive. I feel like we’ve definitely gotten more replays of these kinds of things in the past, and it’s not like the pace of college basketball is any faster for not having them. I’m begging broadcast teams, for the sake of the game, to make an effort to clarify what’s being called — either so we can stop whining, or so that the bad stuff becomes so obvious that something has to be done.