The Tar Heels enter the Christmas holiday with a respectable 8-3 record, are ranked #11 in the AP Poll, have wins over two top-10 teams, and look like a legit contender to win the ACC regular season title. With that said though, this is a team, that still has flaws, and has questions that need to be answered for this team to reach its full potential. Many families will spend the next couple of days exchanging gifts underneath the Christmas tree, and I’m sure that when Hubert Davis wakes up on Christmas morning, he’d like to find a couple of presents for his team moving forward. Here’s what most likely leads his Carolina Basketball wishlist:
Improved Half-Court Defense: Carolina may be 8-3, but they could be 10-1 if their defense would match its offense. Carolina is giving up 74.5 points per game, which is 268th in the country. According to Sports Reference College Basketball, UNC’s defensive rating is 200th in the country. But if you go off their last game, there is reason for hope, once the team gets back in action this Friday. Against Oklahoma, Carolina held the #7 Sooners to a season-low 69 points, 40% shooting, and forced 18 turnovers, which led to 24 UNC points. That is by far the best defensive performance we’ve seen from Carolina against a power conference team, and they did it without utilizing the full-court press, something that fueled a comeback win over Florida State to open up ACC play. This team is good enough offensively to win the games they are supposed to win, but if they want to compete for a conference title, they’ll need to take a step forward to being an average team on the defensive end of the floor.
Better Rebounding: Not only has Carolina underachieved defensively, but they have also underwhelmed in the rebounding department, as the smaller lineup that Hubert Davis has opted to use more often than not, has paid dividends offensively, but has put his team at a disadvantage on the other end of the court. Carolina ranks 132nd in rebounds per game at 37.7, and opponents are averaging 35.3 rebounds against them, but against power conference competition, Carolin has struggled mightily. Even against Oklahoma, Carolina won the game, despite losing the rebounding margin 41-34. In the loss to Kentucky, they were outrebounded 42-32 overall, including 18-6 on the offensive glass. Armando Bacot leads the team with 11.0 rebounds per game, but the next highest average is Harrison Ingram, at 6.3. It might be unfair to ask, but Bacot may need to return to his form from the 2022 NCAA Tournament run for this team to compete against better competition, heading into the ACC season.
Armando Bacot to Return to Form: It’s hard to complain about a guy when he’s averaging a double-double, but that is the case when it comes to Armando Bacot. Bacot has been a steady force for this team, but he has come up short in big games against UConn and Kentucky. On the surface, it looks like Bacot has struggled to adjust to his new role on offense, which means taking a backseat as R.J. Davis has emerged as a legitimate All-American candidate, scoring over 21.0 points per game. But this team needs Bacot to be a guy who demands the ball, to draw double teams, to kick the ball out to open perimeter shooters. He needs to be relentless on the glass, something that helped him become the most accomplished rebounder in program history. Some of his shortcomings aren’t going away, specifically his inability to finish at the rim, but make no mistake, this team needs Bacot just as much as any team in the Hubert Davis era has needed him.
2nd Consistent Perimeter Scorer: There’s no denying that R.J. Davis is going to be a problem from behind the arc, considering he’s shooting 38% from long range. But he needs help. Cormac Ryan was brought in to be another threat from behind the arc, but he’s shooting just 29% from behind the arc. Harrison Ingram is shooting 44% from long range but doesn’t shoot them enough to be a consistent threat. Armando Bacot and Jalen Washington have both perimeter shots but aren’t going to force defenses to change their coverages on a game-by-game basis. Simply put, Cormac Ryan has to be the guy who steps up after the holiday break and be the type of shooter we watched him develop into during his time at Notre Dame.
More Defined Bench Production: Going into the season, Hubert Davis was tasked with getting more production from his bench, after failing to develop a legit rotation during his first two seasons on the job. To his credit, he has played his bench more during the non-conference than he did previously. Seth Trimble has emerged as the one consistent player off the bench, that is going to provide something positive during the game. Je’Lyn Withers has struggled to shoot the ball efficiently and has a fouling problem when playing defense. Jalen Washington has his moments, but it's apparent that his body still isn’t ready to play at a high level for extended minutes. Paxson Wojcik has struggled to adapt to this level of basketball, after transferring in from Brown. Once Hubert Davis opted to move Elliot Cadeau to the starting lineup, it was always going to shorten the bench, meaning that they needed more from their reserves. The fact that they’ve identified Trimble as a consistent contributor is a step in the right direction, but they need more from Withers and Washington to give Carolina the type of depth you typically need to navigate a 20-game conference schedule, and hopefully, a long NCAA Tournament run.
The Tar Heels are back in action on Friday, December 29th, when they host Charleston Southern in the final non-conference game of the season. Tip is slated for 8 PM on the ACC Network.
The Heel Tough Blog wishes you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday season.
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