Near the end of his press conference on Wednesday night, Roy Williams got another chance to highlight his team’s deficiencies.
The UNC men’s basketball coach, coming off a 77-57 win over Harvard in the team’s final non-conference tune up, was asked “Heading into conference play, how close do you think this team is to where you would like it to be?”
“Nowhere near,” the 68-year old said instantaneously. “Not in the same freaking universe.”
He’s not wrong. The 10-3 Tar Heels have shown flashes of their potential this season, including a win over now No. 7 Gonzaga at home, but have also dropped a true road game at No. 2 Michigan, and neutral site games to Texas and No. 13 Kentucky. Leading into a conference play where five ACC teams join UNC in the Top 25, with four of those five currently ranked ahead of the Tar Heels, one can understand the veteran coach’s frustration, especially his senior leaders.
“Of course we want to be playing better,” senior Kenny Williams said. “We are still having the lapses we were having in November and it's January. We need to fix that and we need to fix it quick because the ACC is a gauntlet. Every game is tough, and we are starting on the road for the first two. We need to fine tune ourselves.”
Still, 10 wins is 10 wins, and there are plenty of things to like about the 2018-19 Tar Heels at this point in the season, even with the things that need to be fixed.
Here’s three things UNC can build off of to get off to a good start in ACC play, and three things they need to improve to compete for a conference title.
Long a staple of Roy Williams’ teams, Carolina is once again rebounding the ball at an extremely high rate. They currently rank second in the nation in rebounding margin, averaging a +12.2 margin through 12 games.
Senior Luke Maye leads the team on the glass , averaging 9.8 boards per game. Fellow front court starter Garrison Brooks also excels rebounding the ball, currently sitting second on the team with 5.8 rebounds a game.
But where UNC gets the best advantage over its peers is how the team’s small forwards and two-guards crash the class. Whether it’s Cameron Johnson (5.2 RPG), Nassir Little (4.4 RPG in just under 20 minutes a game) or Kenny Williams (3.0 RPG), the team’s philosophy to send most of their players to the glass when the shot goes up pays dividends in ending opponent’s possessions and prolonging its own.
Though the team certainly can use a spark on the offensive boards at times (ranked ‘only’ No. 29 in the country), and the lack of depth in the front court can lead to poor team performances when players are out either due to injury or foul trouble, rebounding is still this team’s bread and butter. And when they crash the boards effectively, the Tar Heels are tough to beat.
This has been the main storyline for UNC for the past month or so, and for good reason. In the 2017-18 season, UNC averaged 12.1 turnovers game. Through 13 games in the 2018-19 season, UNC is averaging 14.1 turnovers a game. In the team’s three losses, the Tar Heels averaged 15.0 turnovers a game.
Surprisingly, however, the numbers suggest the problem isn’t quite as bad as the eye test or the voices on Twitter make it seem. UNC still has a positive overall turnover margin (1.9 more turnovers per game for their opponents than themselves), and some of the turnovers can be attributed to UNC’s fast pace of play.
But, it is something Roy Williams and the rest of his team harps on constantly in interviews as the main area the team needs to improve, particularly as they move on to face the consistently higher caliber play of the ACC.
“Coach just wants us to play as perfect as we can,” Luke Maye said after the game Wednesday night. “We had three turnovers that I felt like were just passing turnovers, and we just didn't make the right catch or pass. We can clean that up, and we are moving in the right direction like I said."
Pro: Offensive Firepower
Put simply, this team can score. They can score in hurry. They have multiple guys who can carry the load on any given night, and they each have multiple ways to attack the opposing defense.
Led by Cameron Johnson’s 16.2 points per game, the graduate forward leads the team in three point percentage, and also has the ability to cut into the lane for nice finishes or to take slower power forwards off the dribble for easy layups when the team goes small.
Luke Maye has his usual array of post moves and second chance put-backs to build up the bulk of his 14.2 PPG, but he also has a lethal pick and pop game, along with a good mid range shot to make him a more complete offensive threat.
Coby White (13.2 PPG) has shown a nice ability to create his own offense both off the dribble and in transition, splitting double teams to get into the lane or using that threat of speed to pull-up and drain both three-point and mid-range jumpers.
Nassir Little is averaging 10.8 PPG off the bench, powered by his ability to slash when the opportunity presents itself, and a knack for getting put-back dunks with his athleticism.
And that’s just the folks averaging in double figures. Kenny Williams has scored in double digits six of his last seven games thanks to an improved three-point stroke, and Garrison Brooks is averaging 8.8 PPG in part due to an improved post presence and some timely mid-range jump shots.
It takes a complete team effort on defense to slow down UNC because of the plethora of weapons it has on the offensive end. And that’s despite players such as Maye and Williams shooting below their potential from beyond the arc.
Con: Defense against top flight competition
While the offense can outscore any team on any given night, the Carolina defense doesn’t make that task any easier.
UNC ranks 186th in scoring defense nationwide, giving up an average of 73.1 points per game. That doesn’t tell the whole story, as KenPom has the Tar Heels ranked 12th in his adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which accounts for both UNC’s fast pace of play and the quality of their schedule. But a closer look at the box scores suggests UNC has trouble guarding teams that are close in skill level with them.
UNC has given up 92 points to Texas, 78 to a UCLA (a team that just fired their coach), 84 to Michigan, 90 to Gonzaga, 80 to Kentucky. If UNC has a poor shooting night, like they did against Harvard, they run a risk of getting exposed in ACC play by its own developing defense.
Some of the deficiencies can be chalked up to youth, with players like Coby White and Nassir Little showing improvement over the past couple of games on the defensive end. But it’s also closing out on the shooter. UNC is 116th in opponent three point percentage, and their heavy dose of help side defense can at times leave shots wide open from the wing and corner, something UNC will have to fix as they face teams that can more consistently knock down those jumpers.
“We just need to pay more attention to the detail,” Kenny Williams said. “We aren't really looking at the little things right now, and that's just beating us. If we do what Coach is asking us to do, our defense will be top notch.”
Pro: Depth in the back court
UNC’s plethora of point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards may be the deepest Roy Williams has had at Carolina in a long time. The starting trio of White, Williams, and Johnson have all been effective at their positions, and shown no real signs of getting threatened for their starting roles despite some great play by the players behind them on the bench.
Seventh Woods finally looks to be putting it all together as a junior, averaging 3.6 assists per game in just 15.5 MPG. He looks confident driving to the rim, running the secondary break, and just getting into the flow of things.
Leaky Black has gotten time at all three of the back court positions, and is shooting over 56 percent in his 12 minutes off the bench each game.
Brandon Robinson has the makings of a solid 3-and-D type role player, using his length to disrupt on defense and showing off an improved three-point shot at a 38.5 percent clip.
And Andrew Platek has played well in his limited minutes, making the simple play, knocking down the shots when they come to him, and filling in his role on offense and defense.
As the rotation slims down, expect the minutes for the team’s starters to tick up. But it is nice for Roy Williams to have the luxury of some good options off the bench should someone get hurt during the grind of conference play.
Con: Lack of Front Court depth
That’s not a luxury this Tar Heel team has in the front court, as Wednesday night showed.
With Sterling Manley out with a sore knee, UNC looked to rely on Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks to pick up the slack in both minutes and production, with Nassir Little and Cameron Johnson slotting in at the 4 occasionally, as they usually did when the Tar Heels went small.
When Brooks picked up two fouls before the under-16 media timeout, however, things got dicey quick for UNC on the front line. Maye didn’t leave the court until late in the first half, with Little and Johnson taking up the role at the 4 depending on the lineup, resulting in a lack of post presence, an over reliance on double teams, and some easy Crimson buckets off passes from that defense. This also hurt UNC on the glass, where the team’s usual margin faded to just +4 by the end of the game.
Johnson even spent a handful of minutes at the 5 by the end of the first half, a non-ideal situation when your best three-point shooter was forced to post up on offense.
Brandon Huffman played only four minutes despite Manley being out, which isn’t a great sign for him potentially getting additional minutes on the floor should Manley’s injury keep him out a longer period of time, or should another forward go down.
UNC can play small and adjust, as they did against Harvard, but the production out of the 4 and 5 spots, and the number of players who play there that are suited for the position, is something to keep an eye on as ACC play develops, and the Tar Heels go up more consistently against teams that might have a size advantage inside.
Should Brooks continue to get into early foul trouble, or if a forward is out with an injury on a given night, things could very interesting very quickly on the block for the Tar Heels.