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In Roy Williams’ words, three weeks ago, Louisville “(came) in our own building, just slapped us right in the face in every phase of the game.” Carolina responded in kind on the Cardinals’ home floor Saturday, bearing little resemblance to the team that was bullied and outhustled in Chapel Hill on Jan. 12.
For his part, Williams attributed the different results to one thing — effort. Carolina guarded the perimeter as effectively (and intensely) as it has all season, and the post defense was noticeably improved, as Garrison Brooks, Luke Maye and others were able to deflect multiple entry passes and prevent Louisville’s big men from catching the ball in advantageous positions.
Most of all, the rebounding numbers tell the tale. In the first matchup, Louisville won the rebounding battle, 40–31, a common theme so far when Carolina has struggled. That differential reversed by a whopping 26 rebounds on Saturday, with the Heels enjoying a 49–32 advantage on the boards.
With Carolina now halfway through the conference schedule, it’s time to reflect on the factors most critical success down the stretch. Leaving aside the obvious (it sure helps when the Tar Heels are shooting well), the following are four major factors to watch down the stretch.
The first is has already been mentioned above — rebounding margin. With Carolina depending on smaller lineups, a focus on winning the battle on the boards is even more imperative than usual. The Heels were bullied on the boards in losses to Louisville and Kentucky, and this team simply can’t afford to give second chances to bigger lineups.
The second is perhaps even more important and extends back to last season as well: Defending the outside shot. In four losses, Carolina’s opponents have averaged 10.5 3-pointers on 43-percent shooting. In wins, Carolina has given up 7.9 3-pointers per game on 30-percent shooting. Together with the rebounding number, these first two categories are illustrative of energy and effort on the defensive end.
The third factor is the continued growth of freshmen Coby White and Nassir Little. It’s no coincidence that Carolina’s biggest loss came with White on the bench with foul trouble for nearly the entire first half (a season-low 19 minutes). Carolina can still lose when White plays well (see the Texas game), but the Heels’ chances against top opponents diminishes significantly if White isn’t in top form.
As for Little, the last three weeks have marked a breakthrough, with his more aggressive offensive approach leading to major payoffs, and his improved defensive presence and contributions on the boards in small lineups have been a big part of Carolina’s growth in those areas in recent weeks.
The fourth factor is opponents’ points off turnovers. Williams has expressed his exasperation about his team’s carelessness with the ball all season, but the thing to watch is less the number of turnovers and more the type of turnovers Carolina is committing. Not all turnovers are committed equal; dead-ball turnovers that do not result in easy fast-break points are completely different than the backcourt variety that almost invariably do.
A few aggressive turnovers down near the basket or the occasional pass sailing out of bounds aren’t ideal but can be handled. The key will be for White, backup Seventh Woods and the rest of the Heels squad to take better care of the ball in the backcourt. If they do that, they’ll be able to handle the other types of turnovers that inevitably will happen with Carolina’s fast-paced approach.
ROBINSON EARNING TRUST, MINUTES
Brandon Robinson has gotten less attention than many of his more-heralded teammates, but the junior wing has made the most of his minutes so far this season. Robinson has embraced his role as a defensive stopper on the perimeter, but it’s his offensive efficiency that has made him extra valuable: he’s shooting 51 percent from the field and 46.2 percent (12–26) from deep, providing a reliable option who doesn’t need many shots to make a difference.
Robinson’s energy and efficiency has been rewarded with more minutes of late. After averaging 9.4 minutes per game in the 12 nonconference games in which he played, Robinson has been averaging 15.3 since ACC play began. With Leaky Black now sidelined with an ankle injury sustained in the second half against Georgia Tech, Robinson’s role will expand even more, as reflected by a season-high 19 minutes on Saturday.
FOOTBALL SCORES 2 COMMITMENTS
As the 2019 National Signing Day (Wednesday, Feb. 6) approaches, the 2020 Carolina class has gotten off to an excellent start. Charlotte Catholic offensive guard Malik McGowan committed to the Heels on Friday. The 6-foot-3, 315-pound McGowan is a consensus three-star prospect and the third highly-regarded in-state commitment in the 2020 class.
Then, on Saturday, four-star defensive athlete Ethan West (Midlothian, Virginia) chose Carolina over an impressive offer list including Michigan, LSU, Texas A&M, Virginia and Virginia Tech. At 6-4, 225 pounds, West is the kind of big, fluid athlete that has been in short supply on defense in Chapel Hill of late and is a big win for head coach Mack Brown and the new Carolina coaching staff. West is the nation’s No. 10 inside linebacker, per 247Composite rankings, though he could play any of several positions once on campus.
Carolina’s 2020 class is now ranked in the top 20 nationally.
STAT OF THE WEEK
100 and 40. Cam Johnson is now the eighth Tar Heel to make 100 career three-point shots at Carolina while shooting over 40 percent from the field.
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.