By Adam Lucas
It’s been good to be a Tar Heel this week.
Carolina sits in first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and with Pittsburgh hosting Louisville tonight, there’s a chance the Tar Heels could be the only undefeated team in the league by the time they host NC State on Saturday at noon.
Coming off a pair of impressive road wins at Florida State and Syracuse and 4-0 in the league for the first time in the Roy Williams era, it’s easy to feel good about Carolina basketball. But here’s a dose of reality: the Tar Heels do not play a top-12 team in the Ken Pomeroy ratings in the first three months of the season. But starting February 1 at Louisville, Carolina plays five of its final ten regular season games against the top twelve, with three of those five on the road.
Gone are the days when the ACC season was a double round-robin with two equal halves. In 2016, the league schedule is built for television, with the more attractive games jammed into the post-NFL part of the season when more national attention is on college basketball.
Even at 4-0 and 15-2 overall, Williams knows his club must continue to improve as they approach a formidable February. A few areas where the 2016 Tar Heels can get even better:
Defense: It’s pretty simple. Carolina is indisputably one of the best offensive teams in the country. Pomeroy ranks them as the most efficient offensive club in America.
On defense, though, there is room for improvement. What’s encouraging, though, is the defensive potential is there. In the last two games, the Tar Heels have locked down an opponent who was having a big day in the most important stretch of the game. In Tallahassee, Xavier Rathan-Mayes was virtually invisible over the final minutes, and at Syracuse Joel Berry II helped limit Trevor Cooney while the Tar Heels went on a game-sealing offensive sprint.
“The last couple of games, we’ve had players who have gotten a lot of points against us in the first half,” Berry said. “We’ve had to put an emphasis on guarding them better in the second half. But we know we’re going to have to play that way defensively for the entire game. We can’t make silly mistakes. We haven’t played our best defensive game yet.”
The three-point line: Want a surprising stat? Carolina is 4-0 in the ACC while making just 27.6 percent of its three-pointers in league play. That’s a figure that doesn’t sound like a stat of an undefeated team.
Nate Britt and Justin Jackson are a combined 1-for-15 against league foes. Berry, although he’s hit a couple of important perimeter shots late in games, is only hitting 33.3 percent overall. Theo Pinson made three three-pointers in the conference opener against Clemson, but hasn’t connected since.
Especially with Carolina’s success inside, defenses are going to collapse on the Tar Heel post players until perimeter shots force them to defend the entire floor, and it will take a balanced offense to survive the February challenges.
Speaking of the three-pointer, opponents are hitting over 38 percent of theirs. That is far and away the highest mark of the Williams era, and a huge jump over last year’s 30.0 three-point percentage defense, which ranked 14th in the country.
Using the line: One of the most pleasant surprises of this season has been Carolina’s success at the free throw line. With Brice Johnson hitting 80 percent from the stripe and Isaiah Hicks at 80.6 percent, the Tar Heels’ two most frequent charity tossers are also two of the team’s three best free throw shooters this season. That’s a formula for a very efficient offense.
But it could be even better. Pomeroy ranks FTA/FGA as one of his “four factors” that most contribute to a winning team. Even with Williams’ belief in pounding the ball inside, the Tar Heels rank in the bottom half of the country in that category, and in the dead middle of the conference in league games. Two UNC sophomores, Berry and Jackson, have seen their free throw rates drop significantly from their freshman campaign, and Jackson has taken just four free throws in the four league games.
This season is fairly unusual because the Tar Heels have shooters from the line that you actually want at the line. The task over the next couple of months is to get them there even more often.