Thoughts on N. Carolina 90 – 72 Stanford

  1. These early season matchups can be difficult to write about, for one because this year’s team is only in the infancy of finding its identity. It seems like we see a little of everything–some good, some bad, some great, some awful– and can always think “Well, there’s a lot left.” But after a stellar first half and so-so second half, the Tar Heels improve to 3-0 in the home opener in Chapel Hill.
  2. In the first half, the Heels could hardly do no wrong. 3 pointers swished, there was a beautiful alley-oop from Woods to Little (some of that great I mentioned earlier), guys ripped down offensive boards, and the defense was tight. This team has shown in all three games how well they can rebound, offensively and defensively, and the first half seemed like every rebound fell into Carolina’s bread basket. The second half was a different story, with Carolina losing the 2nd chance point battle 11-10, but the potential of how good they can be on the glass, as seen in the first half, is promising.
  3. We’ve seen again the effectiveness of the Carolina double teams tonight. One thing I think is really impressive this team is doing, especially this early in the season, is getting multiple double teams on the same possession. Oftentimes getting just one successful double is a great way to frustrate the opponent, but this team is putting multiple together in the same possession and still defending the rest of the floor well enough to get a stop.
  4. Another of this team’s assets that’s already proven to be very exciting is the ability to score very quickly after a made basket and rebounds. One play really stands out, after a long rebound was corralled by Coby White before it went out of bounds, a quick exchange with Nas Little way in the backcourt saw White blaze absolutely blaze a trail past every other player on the floor get fouled and nearly lay it in for a 3 pt play. This prompted the Jay Bilas comment, “White is maybe the fastest player end to end in college basketball.”

Despite a really slow second half the Heels still held on for a decisive victory. We’re seeing the identity of this team very, very slowly take shape, and I think it’s clear the spark of the young guys will have nearly as much impact as the veteran leadership in molding it. This could be a much more exciting team than last year’s, and one that if it remains consistent, can really make some big things happen.

Advertisements

Thoughts on N. Carolina 116 – 67 Elon

  1. The Tar Heels make the sub-hour drive down I-40 to Burlington and play in what could have been another tough road environment with shot-in-the-dark hopes at an upset, but ultimately make quick work of the Phoenix with a barrage of scoring from nearly the entire team.
  2. In only the first six minutes of the game, Carolina played 9 different players, reaching up to 11 in the whole first half. Yes, it’s an early season game where Coach Williams is known for playing lots of players and getting a look at different combinations, but 9 different guys in such a short span is impressive. Plenty of NCAA teams don’t have 9 in their whole-game rotation, and UNC saw that many before the under-12 media timeout. This sort of experience and opportunity for the young guys to be coached in real game situations will be invaluable in the numerous tough matchups UNC faces in this time before Christmas.
  3. One can imagine there wasn’t a whole lot talked about at halftime other than defense. The Phoenix laid in 45 points in the first half in a number of different ways, with guys scoring on back-door cuts, drive-and-kick 3s and ball screen action. It looked as though the effort was mainly there, but attention to detail in helpside rotations, talking through screens, and being ready for back-door cuts was lacking; that’s something to watch out for against more athletic, bigger teams moving forward.
  4. The defense picked up dramatically in the second half though, with Elon only scoring 22 points. A number of times coming out of timeouts and dead balls, Carolina threw its various double-team defenses at Elon which, forcing some turnovers and a few fast break dunks for the likes of Nassir Little and Brandon Robinson. Again getting some in-game practice for that style of run-and-jump defense against teams that don’t know it’s coming will come in handy when the Heels may need a boost in this tough non-conference schedule.
  5. Whoo-ee Nassir Little. The talented freshman came off the bench for 21 points and was all over the offensive glass, and made a spectacular play slashing down the baseline for a follow-dunk at the first half buzzer. The senior Cam Johnson was lights out all night and really got the Tar Heels going early, pouring in another 21 points.
  6. A quick congratulations to KJ Smith and Caleb Ellis on their first points of the season, and don’t be surprised if we see Ellis flying through the air for a highlight reel dunk later this year… the kid has hops.

The Tar Heels ride some blistering scoring and a number of Elon 2nd half turnovers to a solid victory on the road to begin the season 2-0. Next up, former Carolina assistant Jerod Haase brings his Stanford team to Chapel Hill which should be an exciting home-opener this coming Monday night.

Thoughts on N. Carolina 78 – 67 Wofford

  1. What a day it is! The Tar Heels down the Terriers in a vengeful win in Spartanburg. The Heels rode the experience of their veterans and saw some bright moments from the young guys in an important win to start the season off on the right foot.
  2. The starting 5 of White, Williams, Johnson, Maye, and Brooks looked like one that meshed pretty well all night. I’d be interested to see some stats on how many points were scored with which lineups, but this lineup worked well together offensively and defensively. The only foreseeable change would be for Seventh Woods to take over for Coby White at point guard–which we could see some this year as Woods provided some steadying minutes in the first half–but I think White played well in his first collegiate start after a few first half jitters, ending with 8 points and 3 assists.
  3. Defensively the Tar Heels looked (perhaps unexpectedly) solid almost all night. Coach Williams’s defensive philosophy requires a high level of focus and commitment to always being in the right position. The veterans know this well, but the freshmen even looked good in a system they are unfamiliar playing in. Some of the most difficult teams to guard are ones that move constantly and set tons of screens, something that Wofford did all night. Kenny Williams was battling through pin-down, baseline, and double screens all night guarding Fletcher Magee, and further solidified his place as Carolina’s best perimeter defender.
  4. Garrison Brooks came out with a 13 point first half effort, and ended with a career-high 20 points and 5 rebounds that came with some put-backs and And-1s. With this performance, and not much to speak of from his fellow sophomore big-man Sterling Manley, Brooks certainly proves he’s the guy at the 5-spot for now.
  5. A few really quick ones:
    1. One of the highlights of the game (and the type of play Coach Williams loves) was Seventh Woods diving on the floor after a loose ball in the first half, colliding with a Wofford player, and tossing it to Luke Maye for a dunk.
    2. Coby White made 3 big plays under 5 minutes in the game to help solidify the victory: a corner 3, an old-fashioned 3 pt play, and a big assist off of pick-and-roll action to Brooks.
    3. A well-balanced 2- and 3-pt attack led to 24 points from preseason All-America and ACC POY Luke Maye.
    4. Cam Johnson had some clutch 3s, including one at the 10:20 mark to stop the bleeding of a Wofford run that tied the game.

Well, there it is… the first game and first win of the season for the 2018-2019 Tar Heels. Despite some second half nervous sweating and a few too many turnovers, Carolina comes out victorious in a tough environment and gets revenge on this Wofford team that beat them last year in Chapel Hill. If tonight is any indication of what this season holds, the veterans’ play every night will be massively important, and the young guys most certainly must do their part. Excited to be back!

2017-2018 Season Takeaways

In the wake of a truly ugly and heartbreaking loss for the Tar Heels against Texas A&M in the Round of 32, it is difficult to take a step back and try to sum up this year. I know it is general practice to attempt to reserve bias and fandom in sports writing, but I also know my connection to the University of North Carolina and more specifically the basketball team negates my ability to be entirely objective. Just getting a win and moving forward (outside of the postseason) can often leave something to be desired, partly because I have so much faith in the coaching staff to prepare the players for success. Anytime the Tar Heels leave something on the table in a game or did something particularly poorly that they’d normally do well or that the coaches preach is critically important, even a win sometimes doesn’t absolve those shortcomings. But, I also don’t find it difficult to simultaneously recognize great accomplishments.

In light of last year’s national championship team losing seniors and key pieces in Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, Justin Jackson, and Tony Bradley, I don’t think anyone knew what to expect from this year’s team. Joel Berry and Theo Pinson were really the only guys who played significant minutes night in, night out last year, while Luke Maye and Kenny Williams played supporting roles. Throw in some freshman with no experience of Coach Williams’s expectations, a transfer in Cam Johnson, and an untested Seventh Woods, the predictions for the way this season could go were all over the place.

The Tar Heels finish at 26-11 overall, and 11-7 in ACC play. The season was highlighted by two wins over Duke, one in the Smith Center and one in the semifinal of the ACC Tournament. Going into that game against Duke in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels had dropped 3 out of 4, with only a blowout win against a really bad Pitt team as any salvation. One of the characteristics of this year’s team was their ability to bounce back, to “stay the course” as the coaches say, and show that they had no intention of wavering when things got tough. This team was exactly that… tough. I remember thinking early in the season how much this team hustled after loose balls, dove on the floor, took charges and battled for rebounds. When the Tar heels were at their best, they looked nearly unstoppable, and the toughness they showed was a major part of what made them good.

I think there’s a lot to be proud of this season, so here’s an individualized assessment of some of the great things these guys did on the court. In no particular order…

  1. Luke Maye: the junior forward burst onto the scene in the NCAA Tournament last season, hitting the game winning shot in the Elite Eight over Kentucky to continue the “Redemption Tour” that ended in a national championship. I said it a lot this year to friends, family and Twitter, but Luke Maye is no different player than he was as a freshman when I played alongside him as a walk-on my senior year. The kid could flat-out play, and his ability to shoot the ball and tear down rebounds against bigger guys was evident every day in practice. On Blue Squad (the walk-ons and reserves who play the scout team in practice), our strategy often became “Luke go make a play.” The difference this year is obviously his playing time and getting that opportunity to make something happen every single night. It can’t be understated either how going up against the stout competition of Brice Johnson, Joel James, Kennedy Meeks or Isaiah Hicks prepared him for the role of guarding bigger players and finding ways to grab the rebounds that are so important to Coach Williams. The junior averaged 16.9 points, 10.1 rebounds, shooting 48.6% from the floor. He was named First Team All-ACC, a Wooden Award finalist, and won the ACC’s Skip Prosser Award.
  2. Kenny Williams: the junior guard played over 23 minutes a game last season, but his offensive production was limited to 6.1 points and didn’t shoot the ball particularly well from 3. Williams increased his scoring average to over 11 points, increasing his 3 pt % to nearly 41%. Aside from his contributions on the offensive end, his individual play on defense was a particular asset for the team. I can’t even count how many times he had a crucial steal, locked down his man, or perhaps most of all took a momentum-shifting charge that had me screaming at the television in excitement.
  3. Joel Berry: I think we all knew what type of season Joel Berry was primed for. Coming off a brilliant junior campaign where he won Final Four MOP, the sky was the limit (or the ceiling the roof). Together with Pinson, they were the de facto emotional leaders of this team. With some inconsistency from the Tar Heels at times during the season, if there was anything you could count on, it was Joel Berry was going to give maximum effort and be willing to tear the opponents’ head off at a moment’s notice if that was what it took to win.
  4. Theo Pinson: especially over the last 15 games, Pinson littered the stat sheet, going on triple-double watch a handful of times. He startled many casual and die-hard fans when he found his shooting stroke and assisted in just about every way imaginable. In the two wins over Duke, Pinson played some of the best defense of his career against the force that is Marvin Bagley, and truly was the glue that held this team together in some spectacular stretches this year. More on Pinson and Berry later.
  5. Cam Johnson: the junior transfer from Pitt certainly lived up to the expectations Carolina fans had after seeing him rain in six 3s in a game last year in the Smith Center. From his early season interviews, it was clear he is an intelligent and an intelligent player, and his impact stretched well beyond the just the 3 point line. He averaged 12.4 ppg and a respectable 4.7 rebounds, something he admitted to not really doing before he came to Carolina. His development next year after spending a season under Roy Williams’s tutelage will be exciting.
  6. The freshmen: I am really, really excited about the future of these young guys. Brooks and Manley, especially toward the end of the season, showed that they are capable big men in the Roy Williams system that puts a great emphasis on their performance. Down the stretch we saw those guys come into their own and play some great games, grabbing down rebounds and playing solid defense. Brooks all year proved he was a good position defender, doing well on ball screens and other help situations. What really excites me though is the prospect of the improvement they can have over just this one some. Brooks, Manley, Huffman and Platek I think are all smart, dedicated players who are capable of tremendous strides in one single offseason. For the big guys in particular, the opportunity they’ll have to go up against professional talent in summer pickup will allow them to really work on their defense and offensive moves. This year, I think it was difficult for them to make huge strides in-season because they were going up against each other every day, and the prospect of learning a new move that they can use effectively in-game is very difficult. But having this offseason to work on their individual scoring moves and go up against the former Carolina players who are better than them could make for some massive improvements from this season to next.
  7. Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods: obviously Seventh Woods was injured for a good portion of the season, and after he came back, he didn’t ever look totally comfortable and in a groove. Brandon put together some solid reserve minutes on the season, and when he did get an open look from the perimeter he shot it really well for a good portion of the season before tailing off towards the end. Again these guys have some great potential, and the incoming freshman I think will give them some stiff competition when vying for the now-vacant starting roles.
  8. Lastly, a quick shout-out to the eponymous walk-ons Aaron Rohlman, Kane Ma, Walker Miller and Shea Rush, but particularly to seniors Aaron Rohlman and Kane Ma. I got to play a year of JV at Carolina with Kane and I was really happy for him when he got moved up. He went through something similar to what I did, being moved up in the middle of the season, and hearing those words from Coach Williams that you’ve made it is an unforgettable experience. Likewise for Aaron when he made the team last year, and this year it was great to see him score a few buckets and get the shout-out multiple times from Jay Bilas on national TV for being so jacked.

So now for a bit more on Pinson and Berry: these guys have had an immeasurable contribution to this year’s team and the program as a hole. They came to Carolina when people were openly talking about the death penalty, and took a lot of personal criticism for it. Their willingness to face that head-on says a lot about their character. In a time when the culture of college basketball is changing so rapidly, Berry and Pinson remained a constant, flashing across Instagram and Twitter with their infectious smiles and attitudes, all the while proving their worth on the court every day. These two guys are a joy to be around on the court and in the locker room, and they brought a lot of joy to every Carolina fan as well. With an ACC Tournament and Regular Season title, two Final Fours, and a National Championship, Berry’s jersey will hang in the rafters and the two together cement their place in Carolina Basketball history as some of the most beloved to ever wear argyle.

To everyone who read this year, thank you for the comments, Tweets, and emails. I’ve done this just for fun to try and stay connected in a little more intimate way than just watching every game. I took notes on my phone in crowded restaurants, brought a pocket notebook to brunch with friends in different cities, took some good old-fashioned notes while screaming at my computer or television, even traveled from my current residence in Kansas City to see a few games in Chapel Hill.  I look forward to writing again next season.

 

Thoughts on N. Carolina 74 – 69 Duke

  1. Boy does that one feel good. Anyone would be satisfied with a win to take them to the ACC Championship Game, but winning that game over Duke makes it just that much more special.
  2. Carolina’s defense for the 3rd straight night was as good as it’s been the entire season. The Heels have held Syracuse, Miami, and Duke to 59, 65, and 69 points, respectively. The on-ball defense was solid, something that goes underrated against Duke because missing on-ball assignments often leads to drive and kick, wide open 3s that are just daggers to a scoring run or to end a good defensive stretch. All congratulations go to the freshman big men, Pinson and Maye, who gave Bagley and Carter a tough time getting good shots consistently.
  3. Normally one might be a little nervous knowing they’re going up against a staunch zone defense, and since Duke switched to all zone their defensive ratings have skyrocketed and they won some really big games. But not Carolina. One of the things said often by the coaches in practice is to “Get the ball in the lane by pass or dribble.” The coaches preach it for man and zone offense alike, but it is particularly important against the zone, and one of the things that makes a zone effective is: 1) keeping the ball out of the middle, or 2) offensive teams not having the patience or commitment to get it there every possession. To take some more words from the coaches, everyone must “Work together to get a shot we ALL want.” Pinson, Maye, Brooks, Manley, and Johnson all operated at a high level in the middle of that zone last night, waiting for the open shot in the lane to take themselves or dishing off to a teammate for an easy lay-in.
  4. A couple miscellaneous notes: Carolina assisted on 24 of its 28 made field goals, compared to Duke’s 13 assists on 22 buckets. Carolina was outrebounded 40-39 on the game, but pulled down 18 offensive boards to Duke’s 12, some of which came in the final 3 minutes extending multiple possessions (even though not converted into 2nd chance points) to run more clock off and keep Duke from having more jabs at making a run down to the wire. And how about Kenny Williams, taking a charge for the second night in a row in the crunchiest of crunch times to give Carolina the ball back when Duke was in desperate need of a bucket. BIGTIME efforts from Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley also helped Carolina’s bench outscore Duke’s by an astonishing 16-0 margin.
  5.  The final score doesn’t really tell the story of this game, and I believe it was around the under-16 media timeout in the 2nd half that Dan Shulman asked Jay Bilas why Carolina was leading. Bilas responded, “Because Carolina is playing with more will.” I think that was the difference last night. In the words of Coach Williams, “Our want-to has to be better than their want-to,” and last night the hustle plays made the difference. The play where Brooks saved a ball going out of bounds, tossing it to a sitting Pinson who tapped it to Sterling Manley for a bucket was one of those gritty, unselfish plays coaches love to see. There was the Berry coast-to-coast drive and dish to Johnson at the end of the 1st half after a Duke bucket, the Williams airborne put-back coming out of an early 2nd half Duke timeout and his charge with 17.8 seconds to put Duke in a really tough spot down 3 without the ball.

If there was ever a time to “Go where you go and do what you do,” it was last night in those final five minutes. The Heels went into the under-4 media timeout with an 11 point lead, which shrank to 9 on Duke’s ensuing free throws. Duke was going to go on a run because… well… it’s Duke. During those final minutes, I paced, I screamed at the players, I cursed, I paced some more, I hugged a pillow, I screamed at the referees, and then… I celebrated. I was just going where I go and doing what I do. The Heels look to complete the 4 games in 4 days streak with a 3rd revenge win against Virginia.

Thoughts on N. Carolina 82 – 65 Miami

  1. I think it’s appropriate to say that sometimes the ugliest games are the most satisfying to win. On a night where I was philosophizing about alternate universes and Jay Bilas posited a slip into the Twilight Zone, I don’t think anyone could have predicted a 17 point victory for the Tar Heels.
  2. After Roy Williams pulled the whole starting five to hopefully end a scoreless first 6 minutes and change, Seventh Woods made his best play of the season on a quick-driving and-1 layup to open the scoring. This point, down 14-3 with 12:51 in the 1st half, is where I think we had begun to slip into an alternate reality. But despite not being able to buy a bucket for practically the whole first half, the Tar Heel defense held steady and really played a big role in not letting Miami go on a big run and put their lead at a possibly insurmountable 20 or more points. And somehow, on a really boneheaded play by Miami, Cam Johnson hit 3 FTs with a few tenths of a second on the 1st half clock to give the Tar Heels some momentum and a 1 point lead going into halftime.
  3. This game was especially ugly, with injuries to Joel Berry and Cam Johnson minutes apart making for a scary stretch in the first ten minutes of the 2nd half. Joel Berry was called for a flagrant 1 (how does that even happen?), prompting that Jay Bilas Twilight Zone reference made earlier. Kenny Williams passed the ball to Theo Pinson on a defensive rebound while Pinson was out of bounds and Luke Maye was as off as he’s ever been… the list goes on. The back-and-forth close game made it difficult to watch and constantly uncomfortable.
  4. What a monstrous game from Theo Pinson, finishing with a career high 25 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. His coast-to-coast dunk no doubt will go on those highlight tapes played in the Smith Center before the starting lineups are called. He wasn’t without help though, and even though Luke Maye finished with only 2 points, he found an almost invisible way of being effective by pulling down a game-high 13 rebounds.
  5. The de-facto turning point in the game came after Theo Pinson had a sweet lay-up high off the glass in traffic forced a Miami timeout with 6:06 to go with Carolina up 66-58. Miami came out of the timeout and scored, got a stop, and after a Pinson 3 and Miami FTs the lead was just four points a minute later. Then came the two biggest plays of the game, where Theo Pinson skied for a dunk over two Miami defenders and Kenny Williams made an all-time hustle play to draw a charge on a Miami breakaway. Then Pinson again dove on the floor for a long rebound after a Miami missed dunk and shoveled the ball to a teammate who hit Williams for a transition layup that essentially iced the game.

After all but shielding my eyes from one of the ugliest games of the season, Carolina came out victorious and got the revenge I’m sure the seniors so badly sought. A friend noted to me though how these ugly games are what prepares a team for a tough road in the NCAA Tournament, and finding different ways to win has been a signature of this year’s team and a testament to their toughness. For the second season in a row, Carolina faces Duke in the semi-finals and looks to upend the Blue Devils and avenge the loss from last weekend.

Thoughts on N. Carolina 78 – 59 Syracuse

  1. Outside of a just over 6 minute stretch in the 2nd Half where the Tar Heels did not score, that was about all you could ask for to open the ACC Tournament. The Heels played great defense and shared the ball exceptionally well to put together a solid win against Syracuse.
  2. Carolina’s defense was stifling all night. Cuse shot the ball well from 3 point land in the first half despite a hand in the face for the most part, but Carolina’s defense forcing 9 early turnovers made a big difference. To my count, Carolina forced 4 shot clock violations ending with a whistle, and left Syracuse with at least 3 more shots in the final 2-3 seconds. Syracuse’s naturally slow pace contributed some to that, but the solid on-ball defense was a bigger factor.
  3. Carolina’s toughness also played a big role, putting Syracuse in very early foul trouble, putting their short rotation in a difficult spot. Chukwu fouled out with 16 minutes in the second half (the earliest foul-related exit I’ve ever seen). A few and-1 finishes from Pinson and Johnson will go on the highlight reel, and a powerful dunk after an offensive rebound from Sterling Manley going into halftime will end up there as well.
  4. Andrew Platek quietly put together some good minutes in the first half. Other than the bigs, Platek has played more minutes than any of the other Tar Heel reserves. In the middle chunk of the 1st half, Platek had an offensive rebound and assist to Luke Maye, a steal that led to a transition bucket, and a backdoor cut for a layup late in the shot clock.
  5. The Carolina transition offense was crucial to the Tar Heels’ success from start to finish. One of the keys to beating any zone defense is to get out in transition and score before the other team has a chance to set that zone up. In a 6+ minute scoring drought in the 2nd half, it was a full court inbounds pass from Pinson to Williams that ended the streak and got the Carolina offense rolling again to close out the game.  As well, it is more difficult to rebound out of a zone than in man (for the reason that more often than not, in a man defense, one simply boxes out their man), and Carolina ended with 17 2nd chance points in the 1st half and a slew more on the game.
  6. One thing might stick out to the coaches more than casual viewers, and it’s something I’ve at least thought about a lot this season. During the regular season, Carolina looked great breaking the press, rarely turning the ball over and rarely taking ill-advised shots. In both games against Syracuse and last Saturday in Durham, the Heels looked a little shaky against the full court press, something I’m sure the coaches will address.

Overall a great win to build some momentum going into the Thursday night matchup against Miami. The Tar Heels presumably will have revenge on their minds, and can hopefully build on their best points-based defensive performance to slow down Miami’s athleticism and ball screen-heavy offense.