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Heel Tough Blog: 2023-24 Midseason Report

University of North Carolina Athletics

UNC’s struggles were well documented last season as the first preseason No.1 in the AP poll to miss the NCAA tournament, and yet North Carolina has not let that season define them, as they now find themselves 7th in the country at 12-3 overall and 4-0 in ACC play. But what changed? After all, UNC still has several of the key pieces from that team and the coaching staff remained the same. After perhaps the most disappointing seasons in program history, UNC has rebounded to the top of the ACC as it stands and they have 4 wins over ranked teams, something not even the 2022 national championship runner-ups could boast at this point in the year. Here are 5 main reasons this team has completed this turnaround.

1. Transfers

UNC lost 7 players to graduation and the portal last year, yet they reloaded, and that’s part of the reason the Heels are at the top of the ACC. Harrison Ingram, (Stanford) and Cormac Ryan (Notre Dame) have both been starters and are averaging double figures in points per game. Ingram has brought a level of versatility and shooting that Carolina has simply lacked over the past several years. He has played several different positions and has excelled at all of them. Ryan has brought veteran leadership to a locker room that needed it. We have also seen Jae’Lyn Withers bring defense and rebounding, and while there’s room for improvement on the offensive end for both him and Ryan, they have both proven that UNC made the right choice to bring them in.

2. RJ Davis

When Caleb Love was on campus, it always felt like this team lived and died by him, and sometimes he delivered, other times not so much. This year this team has been much more balanced, but the clear leader is RJ Davis. Having stepped out of the shadow of Love, he has been sensational, averaging 20.3 points on 39.6 3-point shooting. He has improved in all facets of his game and has become the guy UNC goes to when they need a big shot. During an 8 game stretch, Davis led UNC in scoring by scoring more than 20 points in each game, literally taking over games at times and practically being the primary scorer for UNC. While his production has taken a bit of a hit now that UNC is into ACC play, he is still a big reason why UNC has won their last five games and will continue to be an x-factor as Carolina moves deeper into ACC play.

3. Improved Defense

At the beginning of the year, UNC struggled on the defensive end, especially when it came to stopping individual scorers. In the Battle for Atlantis Villanova’s Eric Dixon and Arkansas’s Tramon Mark both had career days against the Heels, and in later losses to Uconn and Kentucky, Carolina struggled in the halfcourt to get stops and rebound. However since the Oklahoma game UNC has held every one of their opponents to less than seventy points and they have out-rebounded all of them, a tremendous improvement. Hubert Davis has preached commitment on that end of the floor and the players appear to be buying it. UNC has done an incredible job contesting shots and staying with their man and it has paid off big time. Should the Heels continue to defend this way they will be an extremely difficult team to beat.

4. Better Ball Movement

Often times last year UNC’s offense consisted of one or two passes and a bunch of dribbling from either Love or Davis, this year it has been a huge difference, and part of that has been the arrival of Elliot Cadeau, but part of that has been coaching. Hubert Davis has made a point to keep the Heels running plays and they have stuck to it. A play in the most recent game against NC State proved ball movement works. Carolina passed the ball into Armando Bacot, who found the open man outside of the three-point arc, forcing a long closeout and from there it was a scramble drill, as two drive and kicks later, Cormac Ryan got a wide-open three-pointer. UNC’s ball movement has been better as a whole, which has led to a better scoring output and improved efficiency. 

5. The Bench 

Hubert Davis drew much criticism for not utilizing his bench during his first two years as a head coach, yet this year it has been a completely different story. Carolina has used a 9, sometimes 10 deep bench with Seth Trimble and Withers being the first two guys off the bench most nights and Jalen Washington also contributing. Trimble has been Carolina's best defender and also has added a scoring element that he didn’t have last year. Washington has been the main backup to Bacot and has produced 4.9 points and 3 rebounds in just 9 minutes per game. Withers has been a good defender and rebounder, while Paxson Wojick and Zayden High have brought energy and life when needed. Davis has proven that he will not shy away from playing the bench even as ACC play ramps up so look for this unit to continue to produce and grow as the season progresses.

So there you have it, the five main reasons UNC has turned things around this year. Carolina continues ACC play with a home test against 11-4 (2-2 ACC) Syracuse at home on Saturday.

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