UNC came into the 2022-23 basketball season ranked No.1 in the country. They had four starters returning, one of which was a preseason ACC player of the year pick, and two others who could get drafted by an NBA team this offseason. Yet, nine games in, the North Carolina Tar Heels have fallen out of the polls as a result of a 5-4 record and four straight losses. What happened to the team that was predicted to be unstoppable? Here’s a recap of UNC’s first nine games along with several reasons they have struggled to start the season.
UNC struggled to pull away from UNC Wilmington in their season opener although they found a way to win. There was a general lack of urgency as UNC could not deliver the death punch. They allowed the College of Charleston to hang around as well as they lead by seven at the half before UNC poured it on in the second half in what might have been their best half of basketball so far this season. Another tight win followed vs. Gardner Webb, as UNC won by 6. The Tar Heels then followed with their most complete game of the season, knocking off James Madison by 16. They played very well defensively against one of the best shooting teams in the nation.
Next, at the Phil Knight Invitational, UNC continued to find ways to squeak out wins vs. Mid Major schools as they beat Portland in the Quarterfinals of their bracket ( 89-81). This was yet another back-and-forth game as UNC was traveling across the country and Portland had a home environment. Hubert Davis deserves credit for getting his team ready and leading them to victory when at times it seemed like Portland might pull a major upset. UNC then played Iowa State the next day and went toe to toe but fell short for the first time, as Caleb Grill nailed several tough jumpers and ISU won 70-65. The Tar Heels then played Alabama. This was a crucial bounce-back game but they failed to make that one play they needed. RJ Davis shot for the win with a possible buzzer beater but it fell wide left and Alabama won a 4 OT game 103-101.
It was their fourth straight game away from home, UNC played Indiana in perhaps one of the toughest environments in College Basketball. They hung with the Hoosiers all game but could not get over the hump, losing by 8 to, at the time, No.10 Indiana. Despite the loss, UNC played solid on the defensive end, holding the Hoosiers to 65 points. They contained Trayce Jackson-Davis to just 21 points on 9 for 16 shooting.
It was the beginning of ACC play, and yet another crucial bounce-back opportunity for UNC to get back on track vs. the Virginia Tech Hokies. The Heels were without Armando Bacot, and it showed. Pete Nance could not stop Justin Mutts, who shot 27 points, and the offense never really got into much rhythm. They were down by as many as 18 in the second half. UNC got the lead down to 9 with 5 minutes to go, and switched to full-court pressure, flustering the Hokies, and giving the boys life. The closest the Heels got was three before Sean Pedulla knocked down a three to ice the game. UNC 72, Virginia Tech 80.
Four straight losses for the Heels, none of which have been pretty, but it is still early, and many people wrote off the Heels last year when they had a slow start. It is obvious getting Bacot back, along with highly touted freshman Jalen Washington will greatly help this team’s post-struggles against VT, but what else do the Heels need to do to get back into the polls and National attention? Here are my three suggestions to improve the performance of this team.
1. Bring Pete Nance Off the Bench
Early in the season last year Brady Manek came off the bench for Dawson Garcia and provided a spark for the Heels second unit. Why can’t Nance follow in his footsteps? The UNC bench is really struggling outside of Puff Johnson, they need scoring. Why not put Puff or even Tyler Nickel, who played great against VT, in the starting lineup and allow Nance to be the primary scorer against second-unit players? This would benefit Nance and UNC greatly.
2. Shot Selection:
Somebody needs to tell these guys this isn’t the NBA. You have a preseason all-American big man, and nobody is feeding him the ball. Sure he’s had his moments and has struggled at times, but he is still your best player, and UNC needs to recognize that and find him on the low block. Bacot has proven that when UNC finds ways to get him the ball, he delivers. Once he returns from injury, UNC must get him at least one touch at the low block on every possession. Somebody also needs to drill it into the heads of Davis and Love that you can’t shoot every time you have the ball. Caleb Love is at his best attacking the basket, yet he dribbles, dribbles, steps back, and shoots the ball from 30 feet off balance more often than he attacks the basket to score layups.
3. Turn the Freshmen Lose:
Seth Trimble has shown flashes of brilliance at times this season but has always been the 3rd or 4th option when he has been on the court. Why not try to run some plays for Trimble? He is a very quick guard, with great handling and solid finishing ability, reminiscent of RJ Davis. He has yet to show much as a shooter but you have to think it’s in his repertoire. It would be very simple to put the ball in Trimble’s hands, perhaps on a dribble penetration kick out to the corner, set a screen, and tell him to go. Tyler Nickel is another guy who can shoot and is solid at the high post as well. Utilizing these guys would not only help the bench production but also take more weight off the shoulders of Davis and Love and improve the overall production of the team.
Is Carolina in trouble? Yes. Can they fix it? Absolutely. The Heels are 5-4 through nine games, they must find a way to win games quickly. However, if UNC can show more effort, intensity, and unity they have the talent to beat anyone in the nation.
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