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It’s safe to say that ACC play has represented a sharp uptick in the level of competition for a North Carolina basketball team that had started a surprising 12–2, as the last week saw the Tar Heels lose two conference games in a row on the road against ranked opponents.
That said, last year’s national title team nearly opened conference play 0–2, getting blown out at Georgia Tech and then winning in overtime at Clemson. That team seemed to recover reasonably well.
This situation does seem significantly different, however, as last year’s team was never really at risk of being outmanned on the interior the way the Heels were in a 12-point loss Saturday against Virginia that (thanks largely to UVA’s slow pace) felt more like a 25-point blowout.
A 12–4 record is not in itself cause for concern, but the losses share important commonalities, despite significant stylistic differences among the four teams to have beaten Carolina — Florida State, UVA, Wofford, and Michigan State.
OVERDEPENDENCE ON MAYE
The first commonality in all four losses is the offensive struggles of Luke Maye, who has been outstanding through most of the 2017–18 season. In Carolina’s wins, Maye has averaged 20 points per game on 56.3-percent shooting from the field. But in the four losses, Maye has averaged only 9.25 points per game on an anemic 28.3 percent from the field (below 25 percent in all but the FSU loss).
These numbers suggest at least two things. First, they back up what has been apparent to anyone watching Carolina’s losses so far this year: Maye (and along with him, the team as a whole) has struggled against longer defenses that have forced Carolina to either create off the dribble or shoot over that length. Maye in particular has seemed uncomfortable on the offensive end against longer defenders.
Secondly, Carolina has lacked its usual offensive balance this season, depending so much on the combination of Joel Berry II and Maye that they have struggled to compensate whenever one of that pair has had an off night. This is one area where the continued growth of Cameron Johnson is especially important. As Johnson gets more comfortable as a key offensive option, he can help the Heels become less dependent on Maye and Berry while simultaneously making it easier for them to get shots.
That last piece brings up another important point: Carolina has struggled to get penetration and create good shots off the dribble. Given the absence of a reliable post presence as the freshman big men develop, this has allowed opposing defenses with length to stick close to Carolina’s outside shooters. There has been very little inside-out game in the four losses.
The second commonality in Carolina’s losses an overabundance of turnovers and too many points scored off those mistakes. Virginia, for example, held a staggering 25-3 advantage in points off turnovers, as Carolina has been outscored in this statistic in four of the last five games. (Oddly, the loss to Florida State is lone exception here, as the Seminoles lost both the turnover battle and the offensive rebounding battle but shot well enough from outside to win anyway.)
Turnovers also plagued Carolina against Michigan State and Wofford. Such carelessness is especially lethal to a team that depends on leadership and outstanding play of veteran perimeter players to compensate for youth on the interior. Fortunately, this problem is more easily fixable, though it again probably correlates at least a little with difficulties against longer, more athletic defenses that can force the offense to create more off the dribble.
In any case, things won’t get much easier over the next week, as Carolina’s next three games are against an 11-5 Boston College team that gave Duke its only loss followed by a trip to Notre Dame (13–3) before hosting No. 19 Clemson (14–1).
The college football recruiting dead period (in which coaches may not have face-to-face contact with potential recruits) ends at midnight on Jan. 11. Carolina will then host its biggest remaining visit weekend, with several key targets in Chapel Hill, tackle William Barnes (Apopka, Florida) and receiver Antoine Greene (Rockledge, Florida) over the weekend.