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UNC Basketball vs Kentucky: Three Things Learned

A tough game that gave us some answers and some questions

NCAA Basketball: CBS Sports Classic-North Carolina at Kentucky Jordan Godfree-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight game, the UNC Tar Heels went to a neutral location where opposing fans outnumbered their own and looked to be punching above their weight for most of a game in which they stayed closer than it appeared their play warranted but ultimately lost. This time, it was to the Kentucky Wildcats, who physically overpowered the Heels on the perimeter and on the glass en route to a 87-83 win. Let’s see what we can take away from this game, as UNC goes into the final stretch of its nonconference schedule:

1. RJ Davis is a bad, bad man

At some point, we as UNC fans will run out of hyperbole to describe the tear that R.J. Davis is on, but today is not going to be that day. Davis had yet another incredible scoring game, improving his streak of 26+ point games to 5 on 8/18 shooting (3/9 from distance, 8/9 from the line). To this point in the season, Davis had dazzled with his jump shot returning to form and a vastly improved finishing package around the rim, and both were on display against Kentucky, though he started the game cold from distance. This game, he also got to shine as a ballhandler to a greater extent than he had in several games, with Elliot Cadeau sitting large stretches due to foul trouble and difficulty dealing with Kentucky’s size on the perimeter. Davis threw several passes at degrees of difficulty and execution that he wouldn’t have dared try a season ago, and turned them into a tidy 4 assists. His day wasn’t perfect — he was charged with 5 of UNC’s 17 turnovers and missed a free throw that would both have cut the Wildcats’ lead to 1 and given him the record for longest free throw make streak in school history — but his second-half explosion especially was, as is becoming habit, the reason the Heels were in the game at all down the stretch. A big three he hit with just under 2 minutes to get back within one when the game seemed to be slipping away from his team just underscored it. Oh, and did I mention he had the team lead in rebounds, too?

2. The discourse on switching is out of control, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems

The past two games, against opponents against whom his backcourt was notably physically outmatched, Hubert Davis decided that his defensive strategy would be to switch everything 1-4: on-ball and off-ball alike. He may have gotten the idea from Kansas, who used the same strategy to slow down the UConn offense before they played UNC. It definitely didn’t work against the Huskies, who had an insanely offensively efficient day in addition to working the Heels on the boards, and this inspired some consternation. Against Kentucky, while the game script was similar, the result wasn’t really. Kentucky shot 45% from the floor and 35% from distance, well below their season averages, so in that sense, the strategy was successful. I’ve seen takes that switching is the “lazy” way to play defense, which demonstrates an extreme lack of ball-knowledge, as well as the only slightly less silly argument that switching gives the opponent mismatches — this makes sense on the surface, perhaps, but ignores that offenses are trying to create mismatches by forcing switches at particular times, so pre-empting them ends up preventing or mitigating as many mismatches as it might create. And, when you’re the team initiating mismatches, it’s much easier to plan to cover for them, and that, once again, bore out with Kentucky shooting completely manageably from the field.

Obviously, I’m not going to say either that the defensive plan was foolproof nor that the execution was any better than acceptable. Communication on off-ball switches has been inconsistent with the deployment of this defense, as Davis himself noted, giving up some embarrassingly open looks — for a team that’s played together about 6 weeks, maybe relying on seamless communication is a needless compounding variable. R.J. Davis and Elliot Cadeau’s on-ball defensive liabilities can get exposed on switching defenses because they pressure offenses to rely more on one-on-one ball. And there might be something to the idea that a lack of positional understanding created some confusion or unsureness on the defensive glass the past couple of games. And it’d be great to see more consistent use of different defensive looks, like the press that wrested the game from Florida State or some semblance of zone (does Hubert Davis just hate zone?), to at least throw a wrench into things. Those are all things that need to get drilled out, for sure, and were contributors, if not as big as the rebounding itself and the turnovers, to the loss. But a lot of the talk I’m seeing about switching on defense has been, frankly, exhausting — the kind of thing coaches and players will use as ammo to claim that laypeople and fans don’t know what they’re talking about even when there’s valid criticism to be, and being, made.

3. Something’s gotta give in the frontcourt

In a stretch that’s been concerningly ice-cold for the preseason ACC Player of the Year, Saturday might have been Armando Bacot’s worst performance of the bunch. He was just 3/4 shooting for 9 points, collected just 6 rebounds, and the tape was even worse. I’m not going to litigate it in detail, because that’s been done plenty of times on the Tar Heel internet, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t just not good enough for a presumed star, it just straight-up wasn’t good.

But Carolina’s frontcourt issues aren’t really stopping at Bacot. His backup, Jalen Washington, continues to flash his offensive potential every now and then, and even though he airballed a three-pointer during his action on Saturday, he showcased his soft shooting stroke on two critical free throws late. But flashes are only so much, and Washington’s continued inability to play up to the physical requirements of his position on defense and on offense makes it impossible for Hubert Davis to play him for extended time. On both ends, he gets out-physicaled going for rebounds and gives up too much position in the post. Jae’Lyn Withers, often called on to play small-ball big, gave the Heels good minutes on Saturday, especially on defense with his 2 steals and 2 blocks, but his offensive inconsistency makes it hard to trust him, too. And rounding out the group are Zayden High, who looks like a promising energy big but plays too much like a freshman right now, and James Okonkwo, who I’m not sure has played a meaningful minute yet as a Tar Heel even with Davis making pretty good use of his bench. I don’t know what the answer is for UNC to start getting good, constructive, and complementary play from its bigs so that the engine that is the Heels’ perimeter can really get running. I’m not sure there is an actionable answer that’s not just “grow up; snap out of it!” But something’s got to change.