No. 9 Tar Heels go back to work Tuesday after week off

By Jason Staples Special to the Times
Posted 1/28/19

North Carolina ends an eight-day stretch between games tonight with a visit to Georgia Tech. Carolina is 5–8 in its last 13 games against the Yellow Jackets away from Chapel Hill and has lost …

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No. 9 Tar Heels go back to work Tuesday after week off

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North Carolina ends an eight-day stretch between games tonight with a visit to Georgia Tech. Carolina is 5–8 in its last 13 games against the Yellow Jackets away from Chapel Hill and has lost six of the last seven at McCamish Pavilion. With the Heels approaching the halfway mark of the conference schedule — and the most difficult portion of the schedule looming — now seems like a good time to reflect on what we know and what we still have to learn about this team.

Coby White can play

Any questions about Coby White’s readiness for the level of play in the big, bad ACC have been answered. In fact, White is already Carolina’s most indispensable player, as the drop-off between his level of play and that of backup Seventh Woods is larger than the gap at any other position. 

While White still needs to cut the down turnovers and would be best advised to shoot fewer off-the-dribble 3-pointers, his overall efficiency as a scorer both in the open court and on catch-and-shoot 3s has been outstanding. Whereas last year, Carolina depended on Luke Maye’s offensive efficiency, struggling anytime Maye wasn’t clicking, this year it’s White who seems to operate as the Heels’ thermostat.

Limited interior presence

Although Garrison Brooks has been solid all season, Carolina simply lacks the dominant presence one expects from a Roy Williams team. Brooks simply isn’t enough as the only traditional big man in the rotation given Sterling Manley’s indefinite absence due to knee troubles.

The rebounding numbers tell the story: Carolina’s offensive rebounding percentage is currently 34.1 percent (21st nationally), which isn’t exactly poor. But that number pales in comparison those put up by more typical Williams teams: 40.2 percent in 16–17 (1st), 40.0 percent in 15–16 (3rd), 38.4 percent in 14–15 (9th).

The interior scoring numbers aren’t much better, as this Carolina team has to depend more on outside shooting (and White’s ability to penetrate) than pounding the ball inside, which has led to more inconsistency.

More balance

Last season, if Luke Maye went cold, Carolina likely lost the game. This season, given the emergence of White and Little and the consistent shooting of Cam Johnson, Carolina has significantly better scoring balance, with four different players who can serve as a legitimate primary offensive threat in any given game. That balance should begin to pay dividends as the better teams in the back half of the schedule begin to take away specific primary options.

Little is about to explode

Nassir Little is turning the corner, and his continued emergence may soon mitigate the lack of a dominant interior presence. The former consensus five-star recruit has scored in double digits in his last three, including an efficient 23 points in 20 minutes against Virginia Tech. Little’s increased comfort level has coincided with the freshman committing to attack the basket, resulting in several highlight-reel dunks and other finishes around the rim. 

The increased confidence resulting from that aggressive approach also seems to be having a positive impact on Little’s outside shooting touch. But either way, while Carolina can’t rely on a dominant post threat, the ability of Little (and White) to attack the basket off the dribble can provide another way to create the kind of inside-out threat Carolina needs to create the catch-and-shoot opportunities that can lead to higher percentages from outside.

Little’s wingspan and strength also gives Carolina’s smaller lineups better defensive punch as the youngster continues to get comfortable in his defensive role against ACC competition.

Roles still emerging 

With the emergence of the freshmen, who are physically more gifted than the veterans, it remains to be seen just how the lineup and leadership balance will work in the second half of the year. Carolina has lots of flexibility to match up with different teams on the schedule, but it’ll be interesting to see which players wind up jelling together down the stretch.


19. That’s the number of points scored by former Tar Heel Theo Pinson in his eighth NBA game for the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night, a new career-high to go with eight rebounds, two assists, and two steals in 26 minutes. Pinson has spent most of his rookie season playing for the Nets’ G-League team.

Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.