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UNC basketball and the game after exams

Every college basketball team has exams, but they seem to hit the Heels harder than most.

NCAA Basketball: Western Carolina at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off the 104-61 pasting of Western Carolina on Wednesday night, the North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team hits the books to wrap up a solid first semester of basketball. The Heels sit at 9-1, with their only loss a dreadful, road-weary loss at the hands of Michigan State.

Throughout the years, ‘exam break’ basketball has been the source of consternation among Heels faithful. The team, ‘distracted’ by exams, seems to play sluggishly coming out of extended sessions in Davis Library or the UL (where, let’s be honest, nobody gets any work done)...or do they?

Going into exams under Roy Williams, the Wednesday night win puts the Heels at 14-1 in the last game prior to exams. Average margin of victory? A tidy 24.5 points, with a scoring margin of 92-68. A 68-66 loss at Kentucky in 2009 (the David Noel dunk game) is the only blemish on the Heels’ record in that time, and a pair of close wins (96-91 and 84-78) over Long Beach State the next two years were the only real sources of anxiety in pre-exam games.

The Exam Break

Year Before Result After Result
Year Before Result After Result
2003 George Mason W, 115-81 Akron W, 64-53
2004 #8 Kentucky W, 91-78 Loyola (IL) W, 109-60
2005 Saint Louis W, 75-63 Santa Clara W, 76-58
2006 High Point W, 94-69 UNC-Asheville W, 93-62
2007 at Penn W, 106-71 at Rutgers W, 93-71
2008 #13 Michigan State W, 98-63 Oral Roberts W, 100-84
2009 at #5 Kentucky L, 68-66 Presbyterian W, 103-64
2010 Long Beach State W, 96-91 #22 Texas L, 78-76
2011 Long Beach State W, 84-78 App State W, 97-82
2012 East Tenn. State W, 78-55 East Carolina W, 93-87
2013 UNC-Greensboro W, 81-50 #11 Kentucky W, 82-77
2014 East Carolina W, 108-64 at #1 Kentucky L, 84-70
2015 Davidson W, 98-65 at Texas L, 84-82
2016 Davidson W, 83-74 Tennessee W, 73-71
2017 Western Carolina W, 104-61 at Tennessee

Post exams? The margin tightens a bit, as the Heels are only +14 points per game (86.5-72.5), with an 11-3 record. The losses are all fairly excusable—a pair of two-point losses to Texas away from the Smith Center, and an 84-70 loss at #1 Kentucky in the 2014-15 campaign.

The issue with the post-exam games, from a fan perspective, would be the sluggishness against an opponent that is otherwise competent. A 64-53 win over Akron in Roy’s first year didn’t inspire the masses, nor did a 93-87 win over ECU in 2012. The Heels split with Kentucky in 2013 and 2014, taking the home win in ‘13 over the defending champs.

Rick Barnes (or his recruits) is the major outlier, and the major issue here. The 78-76 loss in Greensboro in 2010 was part of the Heels’ NIT season, and the beginning of the end of the Larry Drew II era. The 84-82 loss in 2015 was a little more inexplicable—it was Shaka Smart’s first year in Austin, and the Heels were a Kris Jenkins three from cutting down the nets.

Barnes victimized the Heels twice in the first ‘real’ game post-exams: 2009 saw them lose 103-90 to a #2 Longhorns team in Austin, and the 2012 squad—fresh off of the losses of Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes, and Kendall Marshall—got demolished, 85-67.

UNC beat Barnes’ Tennessee team 73-71 in Chapel Hill without Joel Berry last year, in a game that I saw firsthand they had no business winning.

Carolina’s next opponent? A ranked (albeit 24th in the land) Tennessee team. Given the Heels’ struggles with Barnes, and the perceived struggles coming off the break, expect a dogfight in Knoxville next Sunday.