As they move into conference play, UNC will no doubt be a favorite to finish in the top 4, contending with other powerhouses Duke, Louisville, Virginia, and Notre Dame. The key that will unlock the door to a successful Tar Heels postseason is wrapped up in one word: effort. Examining the two losses this team has tells us all we need to know. In the first loss of the season to Butler, the Bulldogs won despite ugly shooting numbers and lack of fluid play offensively. UNC was the more talented team, the better coached team, and the more athletic team. What they were not was the hungrier team. Butler destroyed the Heels on the glass and player more physically in all phases of the game. On December 3rd against Iowa, a similar story unfolded. Despite holding the Hawkeyes to 32% shooting, only 2 points higher than the Bulldogs shot, UNC couldn’t manage a win against a team is should beat 9 out of 10 times. In the words of Roy Williams- “They wanted it more than we did.”
Another concern for the Tar Heels is the strain being put on leader Marcus Paige. While Paige is averaging 13.6 PPG, he is shooting a putrid 36% from the field, largely due to the lack of complimentary scorers for the Heels. Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks are the only two other double digit scorers on the team, but neither has any perimeter game offensively. This leaves Paige as the sole threat from the outside. While a few other Tar Heels have chipped in from the backcourt offensively, only J.P. Tokoto and Nate Britt join Paige in shooting more than 30% from beyond the arc. Tokoto has only attempted 17 treys all year and Britt only logs 15 minutes per game. All these numbers summed up come to one concern: When elite ACC defenses do everything possible to take away Paige, who is going to step up and find ways to put the ball in the basket? We don’t know yet.
Let’s look at some positives. Kennedy Meeks has taken huge strides this season to average 13 and 9, while controlling the paint with 1.6 blocks per game. His partner in crime Brice Johnson is putting up 11.6 PPG and 7.1 RPG while also adding around 1 block of his own every night. It is clear the the Heels can dominate opponents on the inside, as they currently rank 2nd in the nation in rebounding. They also move the ball well, ranking top 5 in assists. The do need to tighten up the defense that gives up 65 PPG, about middle of the road in division 1, but that should get better as the season progresses.
As UNC gets ready to take on Clemson on Saturday night, they have a lot of questions to answer. This team, at its best, has the potential to make a deep run in the tournament. At its worst, it could fall victim to a first weekend exit. Everything depends on which Tar Heels team shows up, and with back to back games coming up against Louisville and Notre Dame next week, we’re going to see real quick how this team does when the ACC gauntlet begins.