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.

 

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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.

Thoughts on N. Carolina 88 – 91 Miami

  1. I’m not going to lie… I saw 4.1 seconds on the clock after Joel Berry hit the 3 to tie the game and my heart hit the floor. It was just close enough to the 4.7 seconds from the 2016 National Championship game that I had a flashback that stopped my excitement in its track from Berry hitting that shot. And speaking of flashbacks, as many times earlier in the season, a first half deficit for the Tar Heels spawned a valiant effort in the 2nd half but was ultimately too much to overcome.
  2. Senior night is a special experience, and it’s a great tradition that all the seniors always get to start (not just the good ones… ahem… like a school from down the road).  I was lucky enough to have that experience, and I know the walk-ons Kane Ma and Aaron Rohlman will remember that for the rest of their lives. Those guys did what they had to do, and left the game just short of 2 minutes in with a 4-0 lead. That lead extended to 18-10 behind some hot shooting and sharp play from Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams, which is typically a start that bodes well for this team.
  3. After the under-12 media timeout things turned sour, and it didn’t look anything like the Tar Heel team from the past 6-game win streak. Too many wide open 3 point looks for Miami, some poor shot selection, unforced turnovers, and what looked like a little lack of focus; it was all there. Perhaps the biggest thing that helped the Tar Heels in that win streak was good defense turning into better offense, where forcing tough shots and turnovers allowed the Heels to get out in transition and work the secondary break freelance that Carolina is so effective with.
  4. No one will like to hear this, but credit to Miami for hitting some really tough shots in short shot clock situations. Often in the second half the Heels would play 27, 28, or a full 30 seconds of solid defense, just to have Miami put their head down and drive until they found just enough space to force something up and have it fall. Miami does hardly anything offensively except set ball screens, space the floor, and try to turn the corner on a drive. Carolina didn’t do well enough guarding the ball individually to get stops to help them cut into the lead in the meaty part of the second half.
  5. When Chris Lykes hit the 3 pointer after near falling down and doing a 360 degree turn and getting Miami’s lead back to 10 after a mini run by UNC, I threw my notebook across the room in frustration and didn’t take a note for the rest of the game. Carolina immediately started a run and a few minutes later, the lead was down to 5 (again don’t remember who or what happened because my notebook was on the floor) and I went to pick it up to take some notes like normal. My friend I watched the game with forcefully stopped me from picking it up, because we all know the superstition is very real, and something about that notebook being on the floor and not in my lap changed Carolina’s fortune.

We all watched the game. We all know how that ended. But what a spectacular game from Joel Berry on Senior Night (ending with 31 points) and a gritty second half effort from the Tar Heels to overcome a 16 point deficit and be right there at the end. For the seniors Theo Pinson, what magnificent careers they have had. Along with Justin Jackson, that recruiting class have some singular accomplishments… ACC Regular Season and Tournament Titles, 2 Final Fours, a National Championship, and who knows what could happen this postseason. I consider it an honor to have played with them, and a joy to watch them over the past four seasons. We all thank them for their contribution to North Carolina Basketball.

Thoughts on N. Carolina 78 – Syracuse 74

[Note] This will be a slightly shorter piece than normal. I was only able to catch portions of the game last night. My apologies for missing the article on the Louisville game as well.

  1. What a satisfying win for the Tar Heels. They continue to play their best basketball of the season so far on this now 6-game winning streak and show no signs of turning back.
  2. As always against Syracuse, their zone defense is the hot issue. Just like when teams play Carolina, they know they’re going to get a team that pushes the tempo, pressures on defense, and rebounds the heck out of the ball. With Syracuse, opposing teams know the zone is coming, and there’s nothing they can do about it.  Last night the zone offense for the first 33 or so minutes of the game was tremendous, with multiple guys finding space in the middle area of the zone and guys hitting the open shots when they came. The worry for this team has always been what will happen if they don’t hit shots, and as last night shows, they’re hard to beat when they do.
  3. To speak a little more about those last 7 minutes or so when Syracuse went to a full court press: previously this season the Tar Heels have been nearly impossible to press with any efficacy. This is because, especially when the starters are in, there are 5 ball-handlers on the floor who all have the poise and ability to take the ball up the court against pressure defense and not panic. I’ve made numerous notes this season about how well this team has broken the press. But last night didn’t look great. It wasn’t that they couldn’t break the press and were turning it over in the backcourt, but more that they didn’t stay composed once they broke it to get a good shot in the half court to force Syracuse out of it.
  4. But despite some shaky minutes, and to note a quote from Coach Williams where UNC is “only playing good defense for the last 2 or 3 minutes,” the Tar Heels got stops and hit shots in crunch time. Joel Berry hit an unreal shot in traffic (arguably a foul) to put the Heels up 2 under 2 minutes (then two more FTs to seal it), and got 3 crucial stops: two when the game was tied and one while up two points.

Games like last night are why playing a difficult ACC season always serves this conference well in the postseason. That game looked a lot like an ACC or NCAA Tournament game, where one team gets out a builds a nice lead, but the other team claws back through sheer grit and determination to make it a game in the final 2 minutes. This team’s experience gave them an edge last night, and will be a difference maker in the month of March.

Thoughts on N. Carolina 83 – Notre Dame 66

  1. It looked for a while, even late into the game, that the Tar Heels could have let this one get away from them. Notre Dame always seemed to hang around, occasionally hitting some shots and getting some stops that they could have squeaked out an ugly win in Chapel Hill, but a Carolina team that showed no real signs of any physical fatigue stayed strong down the stretch and pulled out what came to be a solid win.
  2. Carolina often took advantage of Notre Dame missing shots tonight, despite being hurt by John Mooney going 6-6 from 3 point land. Some forced, tough shots by ND guards in the first half went for long rebounds which allowed the UNC transition game to get going and stay strong throughout the entire game. The transition offense was key to the Tar Heels’ success in these 3 games, and has really showed just how much they rely on it to get easy buckets without having to grind it out in the half court.
  3. Two concerns on defense, one more than the other: the ball screen defense tonight was not good. It wasn’t good in the first game against ND where Gibbs sliced and diced all over South Bend. Tonight, especially in the 2nd half where Geben played a lot more minutes than he did in the 1st due to foul trouble, he got just about whatever he wanted. What’s concerning is how this contrasts to great ball screen defense on Saturday in Raleigh… the ND big men either had a pick-and-pop opportunity or an easy look (often a dunk). The second concern is the 3 point defense, which was only partly there. ND did not shoot the ball well as a team due in part to some good closeouts, but the concern was how Mooney could go 6-6. After a guy hits 2 or 3 in a row, the defense needs to tighten up and whoever is guarding that guy has to take it upon himself to stop his man from hitting another jumper.
  4. Another key to this stretch, which might fly under the radar because he hasn’t put up any notable stats, is having Seventh Woods back. He has played the role of coming in around the middle of each half for 3-4 minutes, playing some solid defense, not turning the ball over, and most importantly giving Joel Berry a break that’s longer than just 30 seconds of gameplay and a media timeout. This play from him has been better than Felton’s was in the same role during Woods’s injury, and has played an important part in keeping Berry fresh at the end of games.
  5. As mentioned earlier, ND was hanging around to the point that it was a bit uncomfortable, even getting the lead to 1 in the 2nd half. A key stretch was when Mooney got fouled and missed all three FTs, to which Carolina immediately responded with a Pinson bucket. The Heels went on a small run to force a ND timeout, but it did nothing to stop the Carolina push. The Heels scored 13 points going into the under-4 media timeout, which didn’t even truly happen on a dead ball as Brey called his last timeout, putting the game essentially out of reach.

What a way to end this 5-day stretch. The Tar Heels put together an always-emotional win against Duke, a revenge-win against NC State, and not the prettiest but we’ll all sure take it win tonight against Notre Dame. Credit to the training staff for keeping everyone in good shape and to the players for not letting anything divert their focus on this stretch. As always, a welcome day off for the guys tomorrow and a couple good days at practice will have them ready for a road matchup on Saturday in Louisville.