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After two consecutive road losses, North Carolina regained its footing with two ACC wins last week, but the concerns that have surfaced in the Tar Heels’ four losses have not yet been alleviated.
For one thing, though the one-point escape at Notre Dame on Saturday night technically counts as a win, it sure felt an awful lot like a loss for coaches, players and Carolina fans alike. Indeed, if the sports gods were a bit less capricious, Carolina, which moved up to No. 15 in the rankings that came out Monday, deserved to win the Florida State game Jan. 3 more than the Notre Dame contest.
Despite the absence of its two best players, Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell, Notre Dame outrebounded the Heels 45-37 and held the Tar Heels to 42.6-percent shooting from the field (34 percent not including Luke Maye’s 8-14 performance) and only 28.6 percent from 3-point range.
After the losses to Virginia and FSU, Roy Williams altered his starting lineup, going with a small-ball lineup with a front line of Maye and Cameron Johnson. This lineup has generally proven effective when employed so far, but given the size disadvantage that unit will face against most foes, boxing out and giving great effort on the boards is imperative.
If Notre Dame’s 20 offensive rebounds — and the fact that T.J. Gibbs got a second point-blank chance to win the game in the last seconds — provide any indication, Carolina still has a long way to go on that front.
There were at least two pluses down the stretch, however. The first was the effort of Sterling Manley. It was the freshman’s high-effort rebound that ultimately led to the two Joel Berry free throws that put the Heels ahead for good with 7.1 seconds remaining.
The second was Carolina’s outstanding defense overall, notwithstanding all the second-chance opportunities. Notre Dame only shot 34 percent from the field and was held without a field goal for the final 5:58 of the game. The next step for the Tar Heels is to put that level of defensive play together with the effort on the glass necessary to actually close out those possessions with defensive rebounds.
WOODS REMAINS SIDELINED
Roy Williams did not sound optimistic on Monday when asked about the status of sophomore point guard Seventh Woods, who has missed Carolina’s last 11 games with a stress fracture and plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
Williams confirmed that Woods has been cleared to start shooting but “not a lot,” cautioning that Woods remains “quite a bit away from being ready to play.” If Woods is not able to return this season—which Williams granted as a possibility at this point — he would be eligible for a medical hardship waiver, granting him an extra year of eligibility.
UNC football had its biggest recruiting weekend of the 2018 cycle, hosting seven highly-touted prospects on official visits. One of those visitors, linebacker Matthew Flint (Gurley, Alabama), committed to Carolina after returning from his visit on Monday. Flint had previously been a Tennessee commitment. Even better for the Tar Heels: Flint will return to Chapel Hill later this week to enroll early at Carolina.
The other six visitors, who constitute the bulk of Carolina’s remaining targets were as follows:
• OT William Barnes (Apopka, Florida), one of the top offensive line prospects in the nation. UNC appears to have emerged from the visit as the leader to win Barnes’ services despite offers by established powers Florida, Auburn, Ole Miss, and Florida State.
• OG Ed Montilus (Apopka, Florida), Barnes’ high school teammate and a top guard prospect.
• OL Joshua Ezedu (Lawrenceville, Georgia), who will choose between UNC, UConn, and Virginia.
• WR Antoine Green (Rockledge, Florida), a longtime Florida State commitment who began looking around after Jimbo Fisher left for Texas A&M. Green is one of the top receiver prospects in the state of Florida, with a rare size-speed combination. Other contenders include FSU, Ohio State, Tennessee, and Ole Miss.
• Jamarcus Chatman (Rome, Georgia), a versatile defensive lineman who is down to Florida State, Miami, Michigan State, and Carolina.
• Gavin Lewis (Madison, Alabama), a three-star defensive lineman who projects as a defensive tackle in UNC’s scheme.
• Tennessee running back commitment Anthony Grant (Buford, Georgia).
• The aptly-named running back Kavosiey Smoke (Wetumpka, Alabama), a bigger back with offers from several SEC and ACC programs.
One thing is clear: Larry Fedora and staff are swinging for the fences with this group, going toe-to-toe with traditional powers for highly coveted blue-chippers. If Carolina is to continue taking steps forward as a program, it’ll need to start by landing players coveted by the Florida States and Ohio States of the world — particularly on the line of scrimmage — and it appears the Heels may do just that in this cycle.