1. The Heels’ experience is paying off in conference play.
Let’s establish something real quick: The ACC is brutal this year. Ten teams in the conference are in Kenpom’s top 50 (including Wake Forest); and this much quality creates parity. Since the calendar turned to 2017, ACC teams not from Chapel Hill are 1-17 on the road. UNC, in that same timeframe, is 2-0 on the road. Having a starting lineup with two juniors and two seniors, in addition to a junior and senior on the bench, while it may mean that the Heels don’t necessarily have the otherworldly talent of some programs that lean more “one-and-done,” gives the team a steady presence on the court.
These Heels, trip to Atlanta notwithstanding, are much harder to rattle than most other college teams. Against Wake Forest, experienced players for the Heels stepped up time and again down the stretch in a tightly contested matchup. Justin Jackson stretched the lead to six with a three-pointer with just over a minute remaining. Kennedy Meeks blocked a shot in the post to make Wake Forest come up empty on a crucial possession. Then, once the Demon Deacons converted a three-point play to get back to within one possession, Isaiah Hicks was intentionally fouled and calmly sank both ends of a one-and-one to give his team some breathing room with 31 seconds left.
2. It looks like UNC’s turnover epidemic has started to fade.
After turning the ball over almost 40 times in their first two ACC games, North Carolina has been much more careful in their last two. Against NC State, in a game where just about everything went right, the Heels finished with a reasonable 12 turnovers in 84 possessions. That’s a turnover rate of about 14%, which is very good. Against Wake Forest, the Heels gave it away 11 times in a slightly slower game, only 69 possessions (I think), which is a turnover rate of 16%, which is still reasonable. No player had more than two turnovers.
Even more refreshingly, the Heels’ assists picked back up this game, totaling 22 on 33 made baskets. An overall team A:TO ratio of 2:1 is definitely something that we can be happy about. Joel Berry, whose A:TO had been dipping in ACC play, certainly helped pick it back up with seven assists and only one turnover. Some areas of the Heels’ game still need to be picked up in this regard; for the second straight game, the team turned the ball over when inbounding from the opposing baseline. These turnovers put the opposition in great position to run up the court, and they and similar types of turnovers need to be eliminated as much as possible.
3. This team still has some things to work on as conference play continues.
As was previously stated, nearly everything went right against NC State. Some open shots didn’t fall, but the team’s overall percentages were good, they took care of the ball, they played great defense, and, as we all know, ended up winning by 51 points. In a game that lopsided, though, both sides have to contribute, so sometimes the winning team ends up looking a lot better than they actually are. We know that the Tar Heels have the ability to be one of the best teams in the country, and while they flashed that ability again on Sunday, Wednesday night showed that they still need to clean up some things to get back to the high level they exhibited in Maui.
First among them is defending high ball-screens. With Kennedy Meeks the Heels’ only available big man for much of the second half, the Demon Deacons took advantage of his hedges to drive to the basket seemingly at will. This should tighten up through some emphasis in practice and, hopefully, the other bigs’ availability in other games, but it’s something to watch out for. Another, of course, is fouling. The trigger-happiness of the referees can be debated, but at the end of the day, if you’re called for 23 personal fouls, that’s simply unacceptable. Wake Forest shot 22 free throws in the second half, and it was a big reason that they were able to stay in the game for the entire 40 minutes despite being down 19 at one point. Both Roy Williams and Joel Berry attributed the fouling to the players swatting at arms instead of defending with their bodies, and this has to be cleaned up as the Heels prepare for an absolute murderer’s row of a conference schedule.