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Turnovers no problem for Heels in win over Gonzaga

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Usually, when a basketball team turns it over 23 times, that team loses. And coming off an embarrassing 84–67 loss at Michigan, it would’ve been fair to assume UNC couldn’t afford such carelessness against the nation’s No. 4 team, a Gonzaga squad that already owns an impressive victory over UNC’s rival from eight miles east of Chapel Hill. 

The Zags were able to convert those turnovers into 29 points, but the Tar Heels nevertheless managed to emerge with a surprisingly comfortable 103–90 victory (and biscuits!). The key: Carolina’s dominance on the glass, as the Tar Heels outrebounded Gonzaga 42–21 (14 offensive), outscoring the Zags 27–0 in second-chance points. 

The increased effort on the defensive end and on the glass compared to the Michigan debacle was noticeable, with players referencing the motivation provided by the extra “33s” (six down-and-back sprints that must be completed in under 33 seconds) coach Roy Williams had been employing since the loss to the Wolverines.

That said, observers should be careful of assuming that Carolina’s weaknesses have been completely shored up. The Tar Heels still gave up 90 points, allowing Gonzaga to shoot 51 percent from the field, a staggering 56 percent in the second half. Of course, the Tar Heels shot a torrid 55 percent themselves, but defensive improvement is still imperative for nights on which the shots aren’t falling at quite the same rate.

Taking better care of the ball on the offensive end — and thereby allowing fewer easy transition buckets — is the first step, but the Heels must also do a much better job of preventing penetration and the quality catch-and-shoot three-point attempts resulting when opposing teams are able to get the ball deep in the paint. 

There’s still time to improve in this area — and Carolina can obviously beat anyone when they shoot like they did on Saturday — but if the Heels want a deep run in March, they’ll have to take care of the ball and defend better than they have to this point in the season.

AIR RAID COMING

When Mack Brown took over in Chapel Hill, the word was that he preferred an “Air Raid” style offense similar to Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma offense, the system that has produced the last two Heisman Trophy winners. On Tuesday, Brown’s offensive staff hires confirmed that direction, as the Carolina offense will be coordinated by former Ole Miss coordinator Phil Longo, whose Air Raid variant resulted in the nation’s 12th-most efficient offense in 2018 according to the advanced “S&P+” offensive efficiency metric.

Like Riley’s Sooners, Longo’s system marries the Air Raid—a passing system and philosophy most associated with Washington State’s Mike Leach and former Kentucky coach Hal Mumme—with a power running game that also tends to involve the quarterback as a running threat. Longo’s efforts will be aided by new offensive line coach Brandon Jones, who most recently worked under Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech and previously served as Riley’s offensive line coach at ECU — including the Pirate offense that scored 70 on UNC in Chapel Hill. 

Lonnie Galloway, most recently at Louisville under Bobby Petrino, will coach wide receivers, while Chad Scott and Robert Gillespie have also been retained, though their exact roles have not yet been released.

FOOTBALL RECRUITING

One of Longo’s first actions as the Carolina offensive coordinator was to go in-home with top quarterback prospect Sam Howell, a longtime Florida State commitment. The visit seems to have gone well, as Howell took his second official visit to UNC over the weekend (a second official was permitted due to the coaching change). 

Howell’s decision remains uncertain, but Carolina’s recruiting momentum is undeniable, as the Heels landed pledges from three more prospects in the last week: rangy safety Khadry Jackson (Windermere, FL), cornerback Obi Egbuna (Charlotte), and defensive end Kevin Hester (Kennesaw, GA). New defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s preference for rangy, athletic players appears to be met by all three of the latest commitments.

STAT OF THE WEEK

6.91. That’s the number of yards per play put up by Phil Longo’s Ole Miss offense in 2018 against FBS competition — and that’s despite playing in the notoriously defense-heavy SEC West. By comparison, North Carolina averaged 5.7 yards per play in 2018, 5.02 in 2017, and 6.3 yards per play in 2016.

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.

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