Though it may have been hard, nay, impossible to have imagined it back in November, the 2018-19 North Carolina Tar Heels have just wrapped up one of the best ACC Regular Seasons of the Roy Williams Era. 16-2 overall, 9-0 on the road, two victories over Duke, and a share of the ACC crown along with a dominant Virginia squad. Carolina is rolling on both sides of the ball and have looked like one of the favorites to cut down the nets in Minneapolis in April.
The question is, can they sustain their strong play in the postseason? Here are three things to watch for when the Tar Heels head to Charlotte:
Has Kenny Williams Found His Form?
Kenny Williams’ shooting woes this season have already been discussed at length. At regular season’s end, he is averaging 40% from the field overall, and 30% from 3-pt range, both way down from last years averages of 49% and 40%. But on Saturday night, in the biggest home game of his life, he came up big, nailing a season-high 4 three pointers, while also attacking the basket in transition. By the time the game was done, every Tar Heel well-wisher was asking the same question: Has Kenny put it back together?
Shooting slump or no, Kenny Williams is an essential ingredient to a potential run by the Tar Heels. Ludicrous All-ACC Defensive snub aside, he’s Carolina’s best defender, by far, and is often tasked with locking up opponents’ top perimeter weapons. In addition, his playmaking and free throw shooting are vastly improved this year and both of those are vital in the pressurized environment of postseason play: Another pair of steady hands on the ball are necessary in the face of defensive pressure (which will surely be thrown at Coby White) and I don’t need to remind anyone of the importance of confident free throw shooting.
But the perimeter shooting is the X-factor, and we’ve seen what it looks like when it doesn’t go well: Look no further than last year’s defeat to Texas A&M, when a nightmare performance from the perimeter (6-31 from 3) doomed the Heels’ season. That loss wasn’t all on Kenny (NO ONE could hit a thing that night) but on off-nights for Joel Berry and Cam Johnson, the Heels desperately needed a perimeter shooter to step up and Kenny didn’t do it. Coby White and Cam Johnson will be the main focus of opposing teams on the perimeter this time around and Kenny will get his looks. If he hits them like he did against Duke...we’re in business.
Is Coby Up For the Postseason Challenge?
The biggest and best surprise of the 2018-19 season has been the play of Coby White. The freshman has been terrific throughout the year, delivering one of the best offensive performances by a freshman in UNC history. His three 30-point games are the most ever by a frosh, he has stepped up in big games, whether at home or on the road, and has been fearless with the game coming down to the wire.
At times, however, he has been erratic (shocking for a freshman, I know). The best example is against Duke in Cameron. It’s easy to blame the raucous environment, the inexperience, the adrenaline of the moment, but that doesn’t account for all of it. The defensive pressure of Tre Jones really got to Coby, forcing him out of his comfort zone, and causing him to make poor choices and commit turnovers. Against Louisville, he turned in two duds against the defense of Christen Cunningham, a veteran player.
Ideally, Coby is going to be playing nine more games this season. At least seven of those games would be against solidly good teams. He’ll see elite defenses and veteran guards. Those players will know that they’re facing a talented, dynamic freshman who is a likely lottery pick but is, nonetheless, still a freshman. At some point a smart, savvy vet is going to be pressing Coby on every possession, knowing that young point guards doing like being pressured (which is as bold a take as saying that quarterbacks don’t like getting pressured). How Coby handles that will be as big a factor as any if the Heels are to win it all.
How he fares in the pressure-packed ACC Tournament will be a terrific measuring stick.
Can The Heels Continue Their Defensive Resurgence?
Early in the season, there were two things about this team that drove Carolina bonkers. The first was turnovers, the second was team defense. Terrible defensive performances against Texas, Michigan, and even Gonzaga (yeah it was a track meet, but we couldn’t stop a nosebleed) made UNC’s chances at hanging banners seem dubious at best. They could score, sure, but what happens when the shots aren’t dropping?
Since then, the Tar Heels have not only been an improved defensive unit, but one of the better ones in the nation. They are currently 11th defensively in the KenPom rankings, to go along with their 7th ranked offense. That’s the highest combined rating they’ve had since the 2008 season. That’s better than ‘09, and it’s better than ‘17. Obviously sabermetrics aren’t the end all be all, we have to actually PLAY the games, right? But that is a championship combo. Their back-to-back lockdowns of Duke, their dominance of Florida State, and Louisville on the road are all signature defensive performances.
The question is, can they continue to perform at this level? They’ll surely have the opportunity to prove it in the ACC tourney. Provided neither team slips up on Thursday, the Heels will be facing the Blue Devils with a rejuvenated Zion Williamson. That will be THE defensive test of the season for them. If they are equal to the task, they will either face Virginia, a slower-paced but hyper-efficient offense that carved the Heels up in the meeting in Chapel Hill, or a team that could muster enough offense to BEAT Virginia, which as we all know takes some doing. If UNC can come out of Charlotte with another trophy, their defense will have earned it.