What a lovely, lovely week. The Tar Heels followed up their impressive win over #1 Duke with a decisive victory over the #16 Florida State Seminoles, courtesy of a terrific second half. This win, coupled with Duke and Virginia surviving against teams that led at halftime, keeps the Tar Heels on pace at the top of the ACC, which has become as fun of a three-way race as any in conference history. The Heels needed Ws this week if they were going to have a shot at the regular season crown, and Ws they got.
Here are three things we learned from Carolina’s strong victory over the Seminoles:
This Team CAN Defend
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Earlier in the season, Roy Williams’ squad was criticized for poor team defense. It’s been the case ever since Ol’ Roy and his high-octane style came to Chapel Hill. And in the first few months of the season, that criticism was fully justified: UNC had some truly dreadful defensive performances, notably against Texas and Michigan, before the New Year.
But this week the Tar Heels put in a pair of impressive turns on the defensive end:
North Carolina's defense was spectacular this week.— Bryan Ives (@awaytoworthy) February 23, 2019
It forced Duke into 20 turnovers, the most by the Blue Devils in 8 years.
It held Florida State to 31% shooting, the worst by the Seminoles in 2 years.
Those are staggering statistics, especially when you remember what this team looked like in late 2018. The results have been terrific, obviously, but this team passes the eye test as well. Players are much more active, have shown more effort, have stayed glued to their man, and most importantly, have played much better against the dribble drive. Roy Williams’ teams have, on occasion, been susceptible to players taking them off the bounce: That wasn’t the case against the Seminoles, who couldn’t get anything going in the paint or on the drive, instead settling for far too many outside shots. Florida State’s three-point percentage was a pedestrian 32%, and it was still significantly better than their two-point percentage, which was less than 29%.
This year’s Heels have always been able to score. But if they are going to make noise in the NCAA Tournament, they will need to play elite defense as well. This week showed that they are capable of it.
An Aggressive Nassir Little is the Best Nassir Little
Life is too short to belabor the ongoing outside (and unfair) criticism that Roy Williams has faced for his handling of Nassir Little. Suffice it to say that it’s been a thing. It was noted by some that when Carolina whupped Duke in Cameron on Wednesday, they did so without much impact from their heralded frosh, instead riding the dominance of their senior leaders.
Yesterday, however, was Nassir Little’s day. Right from the get-go, he was in attack mode, getting to the rim and getting to the line. By the time you have read this piece you will doubtless have watched his brace of highlight reel dunks at least a dozen times, but just as essential were the 8 rebounds he ripped down (his most as a Tar Heel) and the 8 free throws he attempted (his second-most). On top of that, he was active defensively, battled the larger FSU power forwards, and made several of his now-familiar hustle plays, diving on the floor and out of bounds after loose balls.
Effort has never been a question for Little, nor has heart. The only question has been what the best role is for him on a team that already has strong veteran leaders in defined positions. Against the unfortunate Seminoles, we saw it: An attack-minded energy player with an eye for the rim. Sure, some of his shots got swatted. Yes, a few times he probably should have looked to pass rather than take on a 7’4 human being. But his energy and aggression were contagious and, on another night where Carolina’s threes weren’t falling (until late), they were absolutely necessary.
This Team Can Win Without Elite Point Guard Play
It’s been said that the point guard position at North Carolina is the single most important position in college basketball. The responsibilities that go into facilitating a Roy Williams’ offense are so extensive that UNC relies heavily on top-level play from their primary ballhandler. No Roy Williams Carolina team has found major success without having a top point guard running the show.
Coby White is enjoying one of the best freshman seasons in UNC history. But he is, nonetheless, still a freshman and, accordingly, his play has had some peaks and valleys. This week was a valley: He had a dreadful outing against Duke in Cameron, going 3-14 from the field and committing 6 turnovers. Against Florida State, he was 4-13 from the field and 0-5 from beyond the arc.
Guess what? It didn’t matter. The Tar Heels beat the #1 and #16 teams in the country by an average of 17 points. Terrific team passing and the play of Cam Johnson, Luke Maye, and (on Saturday) Nassir Little was more than enough to keep UNC’s offense afloat. Couple that with the aforementioned defense and Coby’s struggles were a mere footnote in what was the best week of year for UNC thus far. If you were to tell a Carolina fan at any point in the last 16 years that their team beat two top-20 teams with their point guard going 7-27 from the field and having an assist-to-turnover ratio of 7:9 they’d have called you a liar. This year’s team is different.