UNC’s dominance of Pittsburgh on Saturday night was quite therapeutic, snapping a three-game losing streak and generally reversing several worrying trends ahead of the all-important game against Duke. Here are three things we learned from the victory:
1. This team has been unlucky, not bad
A three-game losing streak is never fun (and the fact that this needs to be stated is a testament to the privilege we own as Carolina fans), but there has been a lot of talk this season about how UNC just isn’t a good team this year, how they might not make the tournament, et cetera, et cetera. That latter point has been roundly rejected by anybody who knows anything about the selection process, including Matt Ferenchick here at Tar Heel Blog. The former... well, more than just pointing to what-ifs like “what if a 29% shooter hadn’t gone 7/7?” or “what if Luke Maye could’ve made a layup?” or “what if a player who had been over 50% from 3 hadn’t been under 20% in his last 5 games?”, I think it should be sufficient to point out that the only time you get a 30-point win in a basketball team is when a very good team plays a very bad team. Pittsburgh is very bad. I’ll let you figure out the rest. UNC has been uninspiring at times, sure, but this game was a reminder that they can be, and mostly have been, among the better teams in the nation.
It’s worth noting that Pittsburgh, just like the Heels’ last three opponents, started red-hot from three-point range, going 8/14 in the first half and getting just 11 points from sources that weren’t three-pointers. While the opening blizzard was at least partially due to poor play, after the 10-minute mark of the first half, several of those shots were well defended, and nothing changed. Two were from 25+ feet out at the end of the shot clock (both from a player who, mind you, was 20.5% from distance in ACC play), and UNC fans could be forgiven for thinking, “here we go again...” While UNC went into the break up by 10, the lead didn’t feel as comfortable as it should have against the worst team in the ACC.
UNC didn’t do anything different in the second half on defense, continuing to contest shots, and yet Pittsburgh went 2/16 from distance. We all knew those percentages had to come down eventually. This could be a harbinger of UNC’s fortune starting to turn.
2. Theo Pinson can play point guard
I’ve been skeptical of this prospect in the past; while Pinson has been among UNC’s best passers since he stepped on campus, he used to bring the ball up with very little idea of what to do next, sometimes backing down his defender 40 feet away from the basket and throwing the offense out of sync. His playmaking ability was best served in the halfcourt freelance offense, with players in constant motion, rather than UNC’s scripted secondary break.
Just like with the rest of his game, this is no longer true in Pinson’s senior year. As the only real backup option for Joel Berry, Pinson played admirably, with a notable decisiveness in his initiation of the UNC offense. He had minutes at every position but center, but his point guard minutes were crucial in getting Joel Berry to play just 29 minutes this game with no hiccups. Pinson didn’t have his usual scoring output this game (who thought this would ever be written about him), but he continued his excellence across the stat sheet, with 13 rebounds, 8 assists, and just 1 turnover. Though Seventh Woods is due to come back from injury soon, it is unclear if he will be ready to play his expected minutes, and Pinson’s ability to run the team might be crucial in the Heels’ upcoming stretch. Saturday, he showed he could do it.
3. UNC is better when Kenny Williams is on
Oh Kenny, we’ve missed you. The junior broke out of his slump in a big way in the second half, with 13 of his 15 points coming after the break, including all 3 of his made three-pointers (he finished 3-6 for the game). Williams’ play allowed the Heels to pull away from the Panthers, who had been hanging around for the first 18 minutes and were threatening to close the deficit they had faced at halftime. The impact that Williams makes on both ends of the floor is palpable, and it starts this season with his shooting. Once he’s doing that successfully, everything else falls into place, both for him and for the team. Cameron Johnson was just 1-7 from behind the arc, and yet UNC was able to hum along because Johnson isn’t as involved in every play like Williams manages to be at his best, so when he struggles, it can be more contained. Success is internally contagious, and Williams hitting some shots (in the second half, no less) made both him and his teammates better.
He chipped in an assist, a block, and a drawn charge for good measure.
At the end of the day, this win should be kept in perspective; it came against a team that is winless in the ACC, with just two of their losses by single digits. However, a 30-point win is never insignificant, and this feeling will almost certainly help the team’s confidence moving forward into a vital stretch.