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UNC vs. Wake Forest: Three Things Learned

Or how RJ Davis served notice to the country.

NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Going into Monday night, Carolina was 2-2 in their last four against Wake, or since Steve Forbes took over. The games had either been blowout wins for Wake or tight wins either way. Coming off the tough trip up to Chestnut Hill, it was expected that the Tar Heels would have yet another fight on their hands with a squad that just hung 90 on a Louisville squad the Tar Heels couldn't put away.

The first half looked a lot like more of the same. The second half, though, announced to Wake Forest, Tar Heel fans, and the country at large that this squad is different.

So what did we learn in the 85-64 UNC win over Wake Forest on Monday Night?

ACC Player of the Year is RJ Davis’ to lose

The main reason Carolina was able to hang with Wake in the first half was RJ Davis. Despite going 0-3 from behind the arc — including his clanging his first two — Davis found the same lane that Elliot Cadeau used to drive to the basket and take advantage of the defense Wake was putting on Armando Bacot. Davis finished with 13 points in the first half, going 6-8 inside the arc.

Still, the second half started with the Tar Heels down one, and that’s when RJ Davis took over. All told in that half, he went 4-5 behind the arc, 8-12 overall, and scored 23 to finish with a career high 36 points. He showed the ability to adjust to how the game was moving, seeking easy baskets, and got into a rhythm to where he was feeling it easy to shoot. His transition three that forced a Wake timeout effectively stamped out hope from the Deacons, and turned a close game into a laugher in the blink of an eye.

This was the first ESPN ACC Monday night game of the season, and as the NFL is starting to wind down eyes will start turning to college basketball. Games like Monday are what Player of the Year voters remember — a player taking over, scoring at will, and driving the bus to lead his team to wins. There’s still twelve ACC games left and so a long way to go, but it’s pretty clear who the leader in the clubhouse is.

Carolina’s defense is legit

Holding a team like Wake Forest to 64 total points isn’t a fluke. There had been some concern that the defense for the Tar Heels had been feasting on lower-tier teams, and a hot shooting team like Wake would eat them alive. It was a deeper concern after Louisville hung with the Tar Heels while Wake was able to just eat them alive.

They answered the concern pretty quickly. Carolina was getting the shots they wanted and they wouldn’t fall, but it seemed like Wake was fighting for any basket they could get. They hit some tough shots, erased an eight point deficit and ultimately took that one point lead shooting 44.8% overall in the half. Not bad, but even when shots were falling they only shot 27.3% from three. This is a team shooting 38% overall from three, and hit 51% on Saturday against Louisville.

What happened in the second half is on another level, though. Wake Forest shot 8-30 overall from the floor in that half — a paltry 26.7% — and failed to make any three pointers, missing all nine that they took. Eight makes for Wake also matched the number of makes for RJ Davis on his own in the half. Carolina also added five blocks to the 30 misses, and it was just a total defensive clinic against a hot shooting team. Those blocks and misses led to a 15-1 fast break advantage, also a huge role in the lead exploding on Carolina.

The amount of work done by the Tar Heels on defense is impressive, and has continued to help them when their shots aren’t falling. It’s perhaps the biggest difference from previous squads — failure on the offensive side is not affecting the defensive side, and look no further than the losses to these same Deacons for proof.

Armando Bacot leads without scoring

During last night’s game, the Tar Heel Sports Network featured Tar Heel legend Tyler Hansbrough as the color commentator alongside Jones Angell. His perspective is going to be of one looking down low to see what Armando Bacot was doing to help his team win, and he provided excellent analysis about how Bacot was using the focus Wake put on him to create seals and open up the lanes all night for RJ Davis and Elliot Cadeau.

Bacot only finished the night with five points, but the Tar Heels don’t win without him on the floor — as proven when Jalen Washington spelled him and the defensive noticeably dropped. He still had four blocks, seven boards, and drew the defensive assignment on Efton Reid keeping him to 2-7 on the floor.

The hopes that Bacot has of any sort of first team All-American or Player of the Year has long disappeared, but you can see with the effort that Bacot is putting on the floor right now that he doesn’t care about this. It’s been clear for a while that teams are zeroing in on him and forcing Carolina to get buckets in other ways, and he’s using this to help that. He’s playing like he knows this is his last chance to win a title, and he’ll do what it takes.

What’ll be interesting is when teams decide they have to stop letting RJ go one-on-one and they’ll need Bacot to have a 20/20 game again. Can he take the bull by the horns when needed and take a game over on the inevitable off night Davis has?