How Good Are These Heels?

Lee Conner

From Murphy to Manteo, you won’t find a Tar Heel fan who isn’t happier about Caro­lina basketball than they were a year ago. That’s not saying much, given most Carolina fans would rather sit through a Coach K leadership class than watch highlights of last season. What matters is whether the Tar Heels are good again. Really good. Tar Heel good. Good enough that they can beat any team, anytime, anywhere.

The short answer is not yet, but that day may be coming sooner than you think. Sure, we all still have questions:

• Which team is going to show up? Are we getting the team that shot 53% and scored 91 points to beat Duke in Cameron, or the team that—just four days earlier—struggled to score 50 points while getting whipped by Clemson in Littlejohn?

• What’s more telling: The Tar Heels winning two of their last three Quad One games, or they’re only 2-5 against Quad One opponents?

• Should we be encouraged that Carolina has taken care of business against Quad Two (4-1), Quad Three (4-0), and Quad Four (2-0) teams, or concerned about how close many of those games were?

Whether you think the glass is half full or half empty, the seven freshmen in Carolina’s 11-man rotation are probably a big reason why. With only 1.12 years of average experience, kenpom.com ranks Carolina as 323 most experienced team (out of 344) in the country. But there is more to it than that.

Tar Heel fans aren’t used to watching UNC struggle up the steep part of the learning curve in the middle of the season. It’s foreign to us, so we’re not good at evaluating its progression. It typically happens off camera, whether it’s in the summer, on the practice floor, or during the ‘secret’ scrimmage and exhibition games. The pandemic wiped out much of that learning time, along with early season games against “less gifted” teams (to borrow Coach Williams’ phrase), which help freshmen adjust to the college game.

These Tar Heels have played only two Quad Four games (Charleston and NC Central), in­stead playing Power Five teams night after night. They’ve also played six fewer games than Carolina played through Feb. 12 last season, a 25% loss of game time. Put all of that together and it’s obvious why many talented freshmen and the teams who depend on them are inconsistent. The good news is that things are going better in Chapel Hill than they are in Durham and Lexington.

It’s also difficult to evaluate how high the ceiling (or the roof) is for these Tar Heels because they’ve played just six home games. You may be thinking, “Does home court really matter with no fans in the stands?” Caro­lina is 6-0 at home, 3-1 at neutral sites, and 3-5 in away games (although they have won two of their last three), so it matters to the Tar Heels. With four of their final seven games at home (plus potential home make up games against Clemson and Miami), Carolina could add a Quad One win (FSU) and three Quad Two wins (VT, Louisville, Duke) just by de­fending its home court. Road games at UVa and Syracuse could also be Quad One wins.

Whether an ACC schedule back-loaded with Quad One and Two games helps or hurts Carolina’s NCAA Tournament chances depends on four key things:

Caleb Love’s efficiency. Love doesn’t have to play as well as he did against Duke, but he does need to shoot more like he did in Cam­eron (56%) than his season average (32%). His 60 assists against 61 turnovers so far this season must also improve, but he’s shown positive signs (5 assists to 1 turnover against Pitt). Carolina is 7-1 when Love leads the team in assists, compared to 5-5 when he doesn’t.

Making Free Throws. It’s hard to beat good teams shooting 65.8% from the line (299 nationally). Just shooting the median national percentage (70.6%) could win an extra game or two.

More shots for Kerwin Walton. Walton is taking 18% of the shots when he’s on the floor, up from 14% seven games ago. That’s still not enough. His efficiency remains superb (66% eFG, 46% 3ptFG), and Carolina (337 nationally in percentage of total points from 3-pointers) needs more long-range shooting.

More minutes for Day’Ron Sharpe. The Tar Heels are 239 in the nation in eFG%. That’s a lot of missed shots. Sharpe is 7th na­tionally in offensive rebounding rate. Sound like a match? He should play more than half the game.

If Carolina can do those four things, they’ll stay on the right side of the NCAA ‘bubble’ in March. Regardless, with at least five of these seven freshmen returning next season, “Tar Heel good” is coming soon to a court near you.