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UNC NOTEBOOK

Tar Heels turning it up as season winds down

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Early in the season, North Carolina basketball did its best Jekyll-and-Hyde impression. One could never be sure whether the Tar Heels would be the team that comfortably dominated Gonzaga or the team that was embarrassed by Michigan and Louisville. 

Since that embarrassing home loss against Louisville on Jan. 12, Carolina might be the hottest team in the country, having gone 10–1 over that stretch. The only loss came in a late-game collapse after leading by seven points with under eight minutes left against No. 2 Virginia, then ranked fourth. Over the last three games, UNC has trailed for a grand total of 1 minute and 24 seconds (all in the first five minutes against Florida State).

Sure, that includes a wire-to-wire win over a bad Wake Forest team. But treating then-No. 1 Duke (with or without Zion Williamson) and a red-hot FSU team as if it were Wake Forest is a different matter. Now, with four games left in the regular season, Carolina is now auditioning for a possible top seed in the NCAA Tournament, something that hardly seemed possible three weeks ago. 

Yes, losses to fellow contenders Michigan, Kentucky, and Virginia don’t help the Heels’ case. But the wins over Gonzaga and Duke speak for themselves, and the Heels still have an opportunity to go for the season sweep of the Blue Devils in the regular season finale. In any case, the Heels look to be in great shape for a top 2 seed come March.

DOMINATING OPPONENTS’ STRENGTHS

One of the most noteworthy elements of Carolina’s wins over Duke and FSU is how the Heels dominated those teams in their areas of strength. Duke’s limitations from 3-point range are no secret, but the Blue Devils have been dominant scoring around the basket, averaging 43.1 points in the paint going into the game (including 15.8 from Williamson). Carolina turned those tables in this one, scoring a staggering 62 points in the paint to only 28 from Duke, which attempted 39 3-pointers.

Against a big, long Florida State team that prides itself on its ability to wear opponents down with its depth, Carolina dominated the boards 47–32 and ultimately ran away from the Seminoles in the second half with a 40–25 scoring edge in the second frame.

WHITE STRUGGLING, LITTLE SURGING 

“When Nas plays like he did today, I feel like we’re unbeatable,” said junior guard Seventh Woods after freshman Nassir Little put up 18 points and 8 rebounds (including a thunderous putback dunk) to lead the Tar Heels in both categories against Florida State. 

Little, who Roy Williams confessed has only recently recovered from a nagging injury, has been inconsistent on the year, but the flashes of brilliance have been coming more frequently of late. And when Little plays with the kind of controlled aggression he showed against a very athletic Seminole squad on Saturday, Carolina is a completely different team.

On the flip side, Coby White has cooled down a bit over the past week and a half. White had seemingly found another gear in impressive performances against NC State and Miami, but against three top defenses (UVA, Duke, FSU), the freshman shot a combined 13 of 46 (28 percent) from the field and turned it over 12 times, including six against Duke. 

Ultimately, it appeared the increased on-ball pressure and defensive intensity of these better defenses was able to keep White from finding a comfort zone, and the game no longer looked to be moving as slowly as it had begun to in the prior weeks. That said, none of this is surprising for a freshman combo guard who is still learning how to handle the ball to facilitate rather than just to attack, and White is sure to take another step forward soon after having learned from these outings.

If White and Little can manage to play their best at the same time come March? Look out.

MEYER TO HEADLINE CLINIC

Carolina has announced that recently retired Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer will be the featured guest speaker at UNC’s high school football clinic to be held April 5–6. These clinics are instrumental in building relationships with high school coaches around the state, and Meyer’s presence will surely attract greater numbers.

STAT OF THE WEEK

30 and 15. While the focus remained on Williamson’s absence, Luke Maye quietly became the first UNC player to pair 30 points and 15 boards against Duke since Billy Cunningham in 1963. Brice Johnson fell one point short of the feat with 29 and 19 in 2016’s home loss. 

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