It was one of UNC’s more frustrating double-digit wins in recent memory, but the Tar Heels managed to ride their perimeter shooting to a win over Ohio State. It was a strange game to watch, and it’s hard to tell if there’s a lot or a little to take away from it going forward. Regardless, here are three things that stuck out in New Orleans:
1. UNC is starting to develop a turnover problem
This year’s Tar Heels haven’t been incredibly secure with the ball all season; their only game with fewer than 10 turnovers was the season opener against Northern Iowa. At the place at which UNC likes to play, you can live with 12-ish turnovers per game, that’s a reasonable rate for the number of possessions in a typical UNC game. They’re never good to see, but at that point, you can say that it’s just part of basketball. Lately, though, turnovers have gone from mild annoyance to outright hindrance for the Heels. In their last four games, UNC has turned the ball over 17, 16, 14 (in a loss), and now 17 times. That’s far too many; their turnover percentage has been well over 15% in these games after it was comfortably under that mark for the first 9 games (Michigan State game excepted). Against Ohio State, the only players who played multiple minutes and had no turnovers were Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley, and half the reason for that was because they barely touched the ball on offense, with just 6 shots and 1 assist between them. Cameron Johnson had four turnovers largely as a result of his ballhandling weakness, making him probably the one wing player for Carolina who shouldn’t be running the break. He can be somewhat forgiven for this, it being his first week playing for UNC. The usually ball-secure Theo Pinson was credited with 3 turnovers and created at least two others for his teammates by not looking for passes when they were coming, which he will need to clean up. The team’s veterans cannot continue making mistakes like this once ACC play begins.
2. Cameron Johnson is a player
Despite the above criticism of his ballhandling, Cameron Johnson had an overall excellent game. Against Wofford, he flashed his ability in limited minutes, and while his numbers from the field were less than stellar, he got to the free throw line, took care of the basketball, and generally made a positive impact on the team when he was on the court, earning him Tar Heel Blog’s game ball for the Heels. He did all that and was much better from the field against Ohio State, going 4-7 from the field and 2-4 from deep in a 14-point effort, in addition to pulling down 5 rebounds. He was also 4-4 from the free throw line. The biggest questions about Johnson coming in were his ability to do more on offense than be a spot-up shooter and his defense. So far, he has displayed a varied offensive game as a scorer and distributor: He made a three-pointer in transition, made a couple of midrange jump shots, made several nice passes to cutters (being able to see over any perimeter defender he faces is a plus), and again displayed the ability to get to the line. While his defense hasn’t been stellar (he was blown by at least a couple of times for easy layups), it hasn’t been as disastrous as it was at Pitt, where his defensive rating last year was over 110. He has been every bit the player we expected to see and more.
3. Roy Williams is shortening his lineup
Only one bench player, Johnson, played more than 12 minutes for the Heels. Jalek Felton and Sterling Manley played 12 and 11 minutes, respectively, just about their averages for the season despite having less competition for those minutes with Seventh Woods injured and Brandon Huffman effectively out of the rotation. Andrew Platek and Brandon Robinson made 8-minute appearances after averaging 11 and 13 minutes per game prior to this one. The much-anticipated lineup of Berry-Williams-Johnson-Pinson-Maye got some real playing time for the first time this season, and proceeded to blitz their opposition on both ends of the court. Gone were the experimental lineups with 3 or four freshmen on the court. It might have been a way for Coach Williams to send a message following the Wofford loss that it’s time to take things seriously, or a somewhat early preparation for conference play starting in a week, or perhaps a combination of the two. We’ll see what the minutes look like after the players are back from the Christmas weekend and start their ACC season against Boston College.