Going into this season, there were several things that if you had said about Saturday’s game against Clemson, your sanity would likely have been questioned. Between Clemson’s strong ACC play and Carolina’s weak play, the game on Saturday took on an outsized importance in terms of how the rest of the season would go.
All in all, I’d say it went well. A 91-71 rout of the Tigers helped calm some of the worry and ended up being one of the best performances we’ve seen from this team all season. What did we learn — besides the Royism that EVERYONE tweeted out that we won’t repeat here —in this win?
This team needed to have their butts kicked
The problem with close losses combined with a veteran team is that you are less likely to make big changes because you can tell yourself “We just needed to do ‘x’ different and we win.” You say to yourself a made shot or a few more made free throws here and there and no one is talking about your losses, so you just have to keep doing what you’re doing and it’ll eventually change.
The problem is the close losses hid some very real problems that finally gained greater exposure on Tuesday night. The team wasn’t passing, they weren’t going through their big man Armando Bacot enough, and when they did they weren’t helping him out in the double teams by moving around and taking advantage of the uncovered player. They also weren’t pushing the pace, and most importantly, they just didn’t look like they were enjoying things out on the court. No one was able to bail them out of all of this on Tuesday, and even though the Tar Heels came back to make the score a lot more respectable on Tuesday, it was clear something had to change.
This was all different on Saturday, as it wasn’t just about the shots going in, but what was done to get the shots there. Bacot was able to make Clemson pay for their double teams, causing Clemson to have to play it more pensively, and it opened up the floor. Shots not only went in but they were GOOD shots because passes went around to players all over the court. Carolina would either take an open three, or drive to the basket collapsing the defense even more and took advantage of their options from there.
Carolina had 17 assists on 32 made shots. Note that Carolina still only shot 47.8% for the game, so that assists number actually could have been even higher. After a bit of a rough start, the Tar Heels turned in on and never looked back. It was good to see this team could still do it, and it does make you wonder if one of those close losses earler in the season would have been a whoopin’ instead if we would have seen this performance earlier.
Caleb Love can still be that dude
Prior to yesterday afternoon, Love just hadn’t had one of those games yet where you can be reminded of the player he could be. The Michigan game in Charlotte was close, but mostly his struggles have been a big reason you could point to as to why the Tar Heels haven’t played well. You could also argue that inside the locker room some of the heated words may have been directed at him specifically, but to his credit, the game wouldn’t have been close in Winston-Salem had he not woken up in the second half.
It does make you wonder if the second half performance where he went 9-16 overall and 4-8 from three scoring 22 points combined with the harsh words later unlocked something that hadn’t been seen all season. Love was a different player on Saturday, and it’s not just about the 23 points, 6-9 from three point shooting. Love also lead the team with five assists, only had one turnover, looked engaged on both ends of the floor, and only took one shot that had you saying “What are you doing?” It was a heat check on a runout that clanged off the rim.
Even then, he was a different player as he looked at his teammates, patted himself on the chest as if to say “My bad, I was selfish there,” and never took another shot like that the rest of the game. He would soon run the fast break and feed Bacot for a soul-satisfying dunk that seemed to end any hope Clemson had of a comeback. If Tuesday night’s results were the things that unlocked the best version of Caleb for the rest of the season, look out.
There really is no reason why Carolina should be in this position
The maddening thing about seeing them completely own a Clemson team that not only was at the top of the league from a record standpoint but from a defensive standpoint, is that it reminded you that Carolina shouldn’t be 16-9 overall, 8-6 in the league, and fighting for the NCAA lives again. This performance is what fans had expected of this squad all season, and it’s somewhat ridiculous that it took 25 games into the year to see it.
All that said, it also showed you that as underwhelming as this team has played the majority of the year, there is absolutely every reason to think this squad could still replicate its success from last year. They did part one on Saturday, part two is to do it again against Miami on Monday. This version of the Tar Heels-the one that is unselfish with the ball, engages on defense, plays through the post with Bacot, and doesn’t get flustered when calls don’t go their way-has to be the one that shows up the rest of the way for this to become the rule rather than the exception.
There’s another thing this team has had a tendency to do that they’ll have to leave in the past: let teams back into the game. As part of the losing streak, they had significant leads against both Pitt and Duke before both squads went on heavy runs to take over, making it a dog fight. On Saturday, the Tar Heels gained a good lead at half time and then hit the hammer to grow it to over 20. Clemson only had one little spurt, but the Tar Heels squashed it pretty quickly allowing Hubert Davis to pull the starters with over four minutes left. They’ll need to repeat that if they are able to go on a run from here on out, as breaking a team’s will with the talent Carolina has should occur a lot more than it has.
We’ll see if all of this was a last gasp or the start of something tomorrow. A win over the Hurricanes after this performance would give fans a lot of hope for the rest of the season, a loss will slide them right back to where the margin of error is virtually non-existent.