That was fun. Depending on your love of close December games, yesterday’s game was either exciting or nerve-wracking. North Carolina held off a pesky Wake Forest squad to eek out a tougher-than-expected ACC opener. The Heels entered conference play with a solid 11-2 record, but questions still lingered.
As 2017 draws to a close, it’s fair to say there are still valid concerns. There’s an old adage that says you shouldn’t get too critical after a win. So, with that in mind, what did the conference opener teach us as we head into 2018?
Big Man Problems
Drawing on rock band The Verve Pipe for inspiration, this song kept running through my head as I watched UNC’s freshmen struggle with yet another experienced post player. After a surprisingly impressive opening to the season, the interior of Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks, and Brandon Huffman have come crashing back to earth. Their last three stat lines look like this:
Wake Forest: 34 minutes, 8 points, 11 rebounds, 1 assist
Ohio State: 33 minutes, 5 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist (Huffman did not play)
Wofford: 33 minutes, 14 points, 6 rebounds, 0 assists
That does not account for the porous defensive efficiency in the interior. Wofford outscored UNC 26-20 in the paint. Ohio State was even more dominant with a 34-20 advantage. Against Wake, that number returned to a more “normal” result with a 32-18 advantage to the Heels. However, once WFU big man Doral Moore - who only played 6 minutes in the first half- wasn’t restricted by foul trouble, the teams battled to a 12-12 tie in the second period.
If UNC cannot get more consistent production on both ends of the floor (out of three players who are essentially rotating through one position), it’s going to be a frustrating winter. The Heels likely need a nightly double-double from its freshmen post players to maintain any realistic hope of staying in ACC contention.
Small Ball Y’all
I said all of that about the post players, just to caveat with this. Throughout the offseason, we’ve been touting that UNC would experiment with different lineups. Brandon Anderson talked about stylistic changes between UNC and Duke. Yours truly also touched on lineup possibilities (hint: look at lineup #2).
Lo and behold, what is being touted as a “death lineup” (Can we get a new name? Please?) of Berry/Williams/Johnson/ Pinson/Maye is turning into a highly efficient rotation. Per acknowledged UNC stats guru Adrian Atkinson they have scored 54 points on 32 possessions, scoring 1.69 points per possession. Those numbers are even more incredible when you realize that lineup doesn’t have a single turnover - a surprising bugaboo of this year’s Heels.
Yesterday, they ended the game on an 8-0 run, erasing a four point deficit in the final 2:23. In closing out both the first and second halves, that crew outscored Wake Forest 19-5 in just 5:25 of action.
For numerous reasons that likely deserve a devoted discussion, it is highly unlikely that UNC will (or should) abandon the current starting lineup with Garrison Brooks anytime soon. Remember, it wasn’t until February in 2013 that UNC fully committed to Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston playing side by side. However, if the interior continues to struggle and Cam Johnson continues to get more comfortable, then we may see this lineup more often and not just closing out the end of halves and games.
Change for Kenny?
This is not meant as an overreaction. Kenny Williams is firmly entrenched in the lineup because he can do everything so well. However, it’s fair to ask is the addition to Cam Johnson has disrupted KWill’s scoring rhythm. Consider:
11 games before Cam: 55-102 (53.9%) from the floor. 24-44 from three (54.5%)
3 games after Cam: 8-22 (36.3%) from the floor. 3-12 from three (25%).
A slight drop-off was expected after the torrid start, and three games IS a small sample size. It could be nothing more than a minor shooting slump. The puzzling part is Williams’ minutes have actually increased to 30 minutes per game, compared to 28.6 in the first 11 games. Some of that can be explained by the level of competition and close nature of recent games.
Regardless, he still has 8 rebounds, 9 assists, and 4 steals over the past three games. That production equals or increases his per game averages in those areas. Clearly Williams has value to the team and is unlikely to see his playing time negatively impacted in any significant way.
It just may be necessary to manage our expectations on what he will be able to consistently provide. This team has been so impressive in the way they rarely hunt their own shots, move the ball, and score within the flow of the system. Already the ultimate “glue” guy, I’d expect Williams to revert to that style of play if this becomes part of a longer trend.