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UNC Basketball: What we’ve learned from non-conference play

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Will the Heels manage to reach their full potential by March?

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

The non-conference season is finally over. There was a lot that happened over the past couple of months, but at the end of it all UNC will enter ACC play with an 11-2 record. This is the third year in a row that the Heels will enter conference play with only two losses, and they achieved the feat this year by completing one of the toughest schedules in the country. To also follow the pattern of the past couple years, this season’s losses were to good teams (Michigan State) and teams that UNC should’ve been able to beat (Wofford).

The biggest takeaway from this season so far is that when UNC plays at their best, they are one of the best teams in the country. At their worst, North Carolina could suffer the first weekend exit in the NCAA tournament that Roy Williams has done such a great job at evading. The great news is that it is only December, so this team will only get better. With the return of Cameron Johnson, UNC will begin to benefit from more size, ACC experience, and scoring than they had a little over a week ago.

So what were the biggest takeaways from the non-conference portion of UNC’s schedule? Let’s take a look at some of the biggest surpises and disappointments, as well as what UNC needs to do to be able to win the ACC regular season for the third straight year.

Biggest Surprises

Luke Maye

If you ask Roy Williams, there is nothing surprising about what Luke Maye has managed to do this year. With Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley leaving UNC following the National Championship run, there were a lot of questions about whether or not there’d be a big man that could replace the scoring and rebounding that those players provided. Maye earned his starting opportunity, and he has refused to squander it.

Maye is currently averaging 18.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, leading the team in both categories. For the first time in a long time, UNC has a legitimate stretch four who does an excellent job creating his own shots while causing issues for the opposing team on the boards. Roy Williams has many times this year stated that Maye is putting in the sweat, and it has really shown in his development throughout his three years at UNC.

Perhaps the biggest question for Maye going into ACC play is whether or not he will be able to maintain such a high level of play. The issue is that the answer to that question isn’t a solid yes or no. There will be teams that may let him put up 27 points like he did against Michigan, and then there will be teams with much more size and athleticism that will hold him to 8 points like Michigan State. The positive that comes out of the latter is that UNC has so many weapons that Maye shouldn’t have to produce at such a high level. We will get more into that later.

Kenny Williams

Kenny Williams has been perhaps the most surprising player for UNC so far this year. During the first game against Northern Iowa it was clear that something about Williams was different. He’s always been a very good defender, and before his injury he was starting to find his three-point shot. He has also been willing to be the guy that frustrates opposing offenses by putting himself in the position to take a charge night after night. What was noticeable during the Northern Iowa game, though, is that he was playing with an aggression that has never been seen before from him, and that aggression is paying off in spades.

Williams this year is shooting a blistering 52% from the field and from behind the arc. His ability to come off screens and drain his shot has been deadly, and even more impressive than that is his willingness to take the ball into the paint. The only real knock on Williams this year is that he has disappeared in quite a few second halves so far. Still, he has done enough to make a strong case that he needs to continue being in the starting lineup instead of Cameron Johnson. We’ll see if that remains the case.

Biggest Disappointments

Perimeter Defense

For a team that has two very good perimeter defenders, UNC has struggled a lot with three-point shooters this year. Opposing teams are currently shooting 37% from beyond the arc, which doesn’t sound bad until you factor in the many times that shooters were wide open from three and flat-out missed.

The issue can really be attributed to a few different things, a few involving the freshmen big men. Learning how to help off screens and defend one-on-one in the paint are two things that would go a long way in making it less necessary for teammates to have to play such a large amount of help defense. Even still, there is blame to be placed on the players helping as well as they should be within range to get to the shooters outside. The ACC has its fair share of shooters, and so UNC needs to figure out a way to tighten up their defense if they want to three-peat the regular season.

Turnovers

With this many freshmen on one team, you’re bound to run into some turnover issues near the beginning of the year as players figure out how to play with each other. The issue in UNC’s case is how out of hand it has gotten at various points of the season. The Heels are currently averaging 13.6 turnovers per game, while opposing teams are averaging 13.1. It is perhaps the fact that opposing teams are averaging such a close number that is the reason the Heels have such a good record, because when you turnover the ball 17 times like what happened against Ohio State, no team should be able to win that game.

To put it bluntly: if UNC doesn’t fix this soon, they’re not winning the ACC and will be lucky to get very far in the tournament. We can all expect the word “turnovers” to be on Roy Williams’ board each and every game for the rest of the season until it is fixed.

Reasons why UNC will win the ACC: Lots of good three-point shooting and the ability to wear down defenses. Also, if the past couple years are any indication UNC will have their defense where it needs to be by the time the ACC Tournament starts.

Reasons why UNC will not win the ACC: Turnovers are without a doubt the biggest issue plaguing this team right now, but this team has also had two really bad nights shooting the ball. Much credit is due to the teams they went against, but ultimately UNC is too talented to have historically bad shooting nights no matter how good the opposing defenses are.

Prediction: UNC will finish 3rd in the regular season and will be the runner-up in the ACC Tournament.

If the NCAA Tournament started today: UNC would make it to the Elite Eight. UNC’s non-conference schedule had a weirdly large amount of potential NCAA Tournament teams. Taking out all but two teams is a good indicator that they’d go deep, but everything would hinge on whether or not they played to their potential each night. So far, they haven’t proven that they can.