By David Bennett
Despite the truly gut-wrenching end to North Carolina’s 2015-16 men’s basketball season, most Tar Heel fans will admit that, while it didn’t end in championship glory, last year was a special one. Headlined by All-American Brice Johnson and fan favorite Marcus Paige, the Heels won both the ACC regular season and tournament titles, then ran through the NCAA Tourney field before the instant-classic with Villanova in the national title game. It was a talented, special group of players who Carolina fans were fortunate to get to watch.
That being said, while last year’s team was indeed a great one, this year’s Tar Heel squad is, or at least has the potential to be, better than last year’s national runner-up. While many may scoff at the notion that a team could get better after losing both Johnson and Paige, and others may point to the Heels’ recent stretch of poor play, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, there is evidence to support this theory.
Take, for instance, rebounding, which has long been a focus of North Carolina teams under Roy Williams. Brice Johnson was a one-man wrecking crew when it came to cleaning up the glass last season, averaging 10.4 rebounds per game. Despite his efforts, however, only one other Tar Heel averaged over five rebounds per game, that being Kennedy Meeks at 5.9. Contrast that to this season, when four different Tar Heels average more than five boards per contest, led by an improved, motivated Meeks at 9.5 per game.
Put simply, the Heels have dominated opponents on the glass during this year’s campaign. They currently lead the country in rebounding margin at an eye-popping rate of +13.5/game, which is a shade over two more rebounds per game than the second place team on that list. Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley have provided the bulk of the heavy lifting in that department, but other players such as Theo Pinson, when healthy, and Luke Maye, who grabbed an astonishing 15 rebounds against Florida State, have shown the ability to snatch up missed shots. The team’s rebounding prowess has allowed the Heels to get second and third chance buckets on a frequent basis, while also allowing Carolina’s shooters, namely Justin Jackson and Joel Berry, the freedom to shoot at will, knowing that even their misses have a solid chance of being picked up by a teammate.
UNC’s rebounding prowess hasn’t been the only reason for the team’s success thus far this season, however. Improved three-point shooting has also been key for the Heels, as Jackson and Berry, specifically, have feasted from beyond the arc. Carolina, which ranked 215th nationally in three-point shooting percentage last year at a measly 32 percent, has drastically improved in that regard this year, vaulting up to 97th nationally at 37.5 percent.
Joel Berry has improved his three-point shooting from 38 percent last year to 43 percent this year, an uptick that has forced defenders to locate the junior guard every time he crosses half court. Though he has had a few hiccups this season, Berry has been absolutely lethal when given any kind of time and space, hitting shots from all over the floor, many from several feet beyond the three-point arc.
While Berry has been filling it up for UNC from deep, it is the emergence of Justin Jackson’s three-point stroke that has really been the difference in the Heels’ overall shooting percentage from downtown. Jackson, who came to Chapel Hill with a reputation as a sharpshooter, but who struggled from long range during his first two years on campus, has dramatically improved on his accuracy from the three-point line, going from a paltry 29 percent last year to a very respectable 39 this season. The lanky junior has become a stud for the Heels, averaging 18.7 points while showing the ability to score in a variety of ways, from three-pointers to explosive, slithery drives to the hole.
This marked improvement has given Carolina two reliable three-point shooting threats, a luxury the team did not have last season, when opponents would often times pack the paint to prevent Johnson and the other bigs from having their way, while daring the Carolina guards to beat them with the long ball. Due to the red-hot shooting of Jackson and Berry, however, teams have had to respect Carolina’s shooters, freeing up space for Meeks, Hicks, and Bradley to do damage down low.
But it hasn’t just been the Berry and Jackson show this year. The Heels, as a whole, have been scoring at a higher clip this season (88.0 PPG/6th nationally) than they did last year (82.8 PPG/10th nationally). Meeks, Hicks, Bradley, Maye, Pinson, Nate Britt and Kenny Williams have all contributed offensively, and when you add in freshmen guards Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods, both of whom have steadily improved and shown glimpses of the players they have the potential to be, you have a team with 11 players who have seen and contributed in significant minutes this season. That kind of quality, experienced depth is virtually unmatched in the college game, and makes the Heels a nightmare for opponents to game plan for.
Of course, no team is without its warts, and Carolina is no exception. The lack of defensive intensity and focus at times is a concern, and Roy Williams has said as much. The Heels allowed ACC cellar dweller Pittsburgh to shoot 55 percent from the field in Chapel Hill, making that two out of the last three teams Carolina has faced that have shot 50 percent or better for the game.
Versatile forward Theo Pinson’s continued injury issues also loom large for this team. It cannot be overstated what Pinson means to this Heels squad. He provides a bit of everything – energy, rebounding, scoring, passing, defense – making him the perfect Swiss Army Knife for Roy Williams’ bunch. Unfortunately for UNC, Pinson hasn’t been able to stay on the court, as recovery from a broken bone in his foot suffered during the offseason, and now a rolled ankle, have significantly limited his time on the court. Adding Pinson to the lineup turns Carolina from a very good team to a great one, and could be the missing piece to the National Championship puzzle for UNC.
Additionally, Carolina finishes their conference slate with a brutal stretch that will see them play six ranked opponents in their last eight games. This gauntlet of games will test North Carolina’s mettle, and could go a long way in determining how the Heels fare come postseason play. A good run through those eight games and the Heels will be heading into the ACC Tournament with a truckload of confidence and looking for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. A poor showing would leave them sputtering into postseason play, a scenario no UNC fans wants to see occur.
Despite these concerns, however, this year’s North Carolina team is loaded with quality, experienced talent that is aching to make amends for the soul-crushing end to last year’s run. And while no one yet knows how this season will end for the Tar Heels, there is plenty of reason for optimism that this year’s squad can not only get back to the Final Four, but finish the job and cut down the nets this time as well.