Growing Pains

Lee Conner

We’re all sick of hearing it: This has been a year like no other. College basketball has reflected the world around it, accepting isolation and other burdensome precautions, only to still be tormented by uncertainty and cancellations.

No one knew what to expect when conference tournaments fell like dominos a year ago, culminating in the cancellation of March Madness itself.

There were many days when the only thing convincing me we would reach the end of this college basketball season was the financial disaster universities would endure if they pulled the ripcord. But somehow here we are. Conference tournaments are under way, and March Madness feels inevitable again. Things are not “normal,” but college basketball and the world have rebounded since last March, and that positive trend is accelerating.

The same can be said for the Tar Heels. One year ago, they hit rock bottom, punctuating an embarrassing 14-19 season with a 28-point loss to Syracuse in the ACC Tournament.

Fast forward to today, and the Tar Heels picked themselves up off the deck, finishing the regular season 16-9 against the 35th toughest schedule in the country. Led by Day’Ron Sharpe (18.7 OR%, 1st in the nation), Caro­lina has literally rebounded its way back to respect­ability, owning the offensive glass (40.6 OR%, also 1st in the nation) and helping compensate for below-average shooting (eFG 48.5%, 245th nationally).

Granted, it sometimes feels like two steps forward are followed by one step back (Mar­quette game, anyone?), but there’s no doubt the Tar Heels have improved since last March. They’ve climbed in computer rankings (NET 39, ESPN BPI 30, Kenpom 31 this season vs. NET 80, ESPN BPI 74, Kenpom 84 last season), oddsmakers gave them the third best odds to win the ACC Tournament, and every ‘Bracketologist’ assured us that Carolina will be invited to the Big Dance. It’s not the rarified air Tar Heel fans expect, but you can see there from here, which is not something you could say a year ago.

Even when clear, progress is often pain­ful. For each Carolina victory over Duke, comeback win against Florida State, and blowout of Louisville, there was a last-second dagger delivered by Texas, a whipping in Charlottes­ville, and near-misses against NC State and Syracuse. Most of that pain can be traced back to three things: (1) poor shooting, especially from the free throw (67.1%, 290th in the nation) and three-point lines (30.9%, 292nd), (2) com­mitting too many turnovers (21.1%, 279th; 1.03 assist/turnover rate), and (3) COVID-re­lated cancellations tilting the ACC schedule (12 games against the other top ten ACC teams vs. only four games against the bottom five; seven home games vs. nine on the road).

Poor shooting was a team problem, with the exceptions of Armando Bacot (62.2 eFG%), Walker Kessler (62.1 eFG%) and Kerwin Wal­ton (61.6 eFG%, 94.1 FT%, 42.1 3PT%). Caleb Love and RJ Davis were both strong contributors from the charity stripe (79.7%), but they offset that with subpar field goal shooting (eFG%: Love 36.4, Davis 40.7; 3PT%: Love 23.8, Davis 30.9). Walton should have made the ACC All-Freshman Team over Love, who despite having some great moments (notably round against Duke in Cameron) and a bright future, ended the season with just 94 assists against 84 turnovers. Love’s 1.12 assist-to-turnover rate must skyrocket for Carolina to win multiple games in Indianapolis.

Maybe Love’s stats (and his teammates, who had a collective 1.01 assist-to-turnover rate) would have been better if three home games (Clemson, Va Tech, and Miami) and a road game against last-place Boston College weren’t cancelled by COVID-19 issues. Given Carolina’s 9-1 record at home, it’s easy to believe the Tar Heels would’ve gone at least 3-1 in those games. Like the rest of us, I’m sure Roy Williams wished more than once this season that the Tar Heels were immune from the world around them, but they weren’t.

While COVID-19 revamped the schedule, Carolina never went on a dreaded “COVID pause” like many other teams. Credit goes to the players, who average only 1.06 years of ex­perience (326th nationally), for their maturity and sustained self-discipline, one post-Duke game party notwithstanding.

In what often felt like the longest year, Carolina transformed into a team that can beat anybody, but can also lay an egg. That should make this post-season ‘must-see TV.’ I expect them to do well in Greensboro; advancing in March Madness depends on their draw.

No matter what happens, these Tar Heels already have reasons to smile. They survived, and at times thrived, during unprecedented circumstances. They returned to relevance, and they swept Duke. (If you didn’t jump up to cheer Sterling Manley’s dunk and block, stop calling yourself a Tar Heel.) I don’t foresee a national championship this year, but depending on who returns, next season could be special.