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So far this season, North Carolina basketball has done its best Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde impression, and the Tar Heels’ last two games are perhaps the best example. Last week’s comfortable win over Gonzaga demonstrated that when the Tar Heels shoot well, they can beat anyone in the country — particularly if the game is played at a high pace.
Signs that “Bad Carolina’ still lurked under the surface were still there, however, as the Heels turned the ball over 23 times and allowed Gonzaga to shoot over 50 percent from the field. Saturday’s 80–72 loss to Kentucky featured more of those “Bad Carolina” warts — including 17 turnovers — but without the lights-out shooting and dominance on the boards needed to overcome otherwise sloppy play.
At least theoretically, turnovers are something that can be improved upon with attention over the course of a season. But more concerning is how, like Michigan previously, Kentucky was able to overpower the Tar Heels inside, as the Wildcats outrebounded Carolina 43–33 and held UNC to a season-low five offensive boards.
This is, of course, the same problem that ultimately led to an early exit from last year’s NCAA tournament, as Carolina was overwhelmed by Texas A&M’s front line.
“We don’t have a big stud like we’ve had at times in the past,” Roy Williams explained in Saturday’s postgame press conference, “but we still have to figure out ways to play and win.”
Carolina’s small-ball lineups can help neutralize this disadvantage, but that lineup depends on maintaining a fast tempo and is obviously less effective when the Heels aren’t shooting quite as well. And a small lineup simply can’t work if, as Williams lamented, “We couldn’t guard the post. We couldn’t get a rebound.”
This UNC team has shown it can float like a butterfly; if the game is beautiful and fast-paced, they can play with anyone. But styles make fights, and the Heels will have to dig much deeper defensively and get better play from the interior if they’re going to develop the ability to win a half-court slugfest, a capacity that continues to be the big question for this Tar Heel squad.
EARLY CHRISTMAS GIFTS
If there were concerns that Mack Brown had lost his recruiting touch, the early signing period has demonstrated that the old king of North Carolina recruiting still knows a thing or two. Brown was able to convince offensive lineman Triston Miller (Charlotte Country Day) to flip from rival NC State and — even more significantly — flip Sam Howell (Monroe Sun Valley) from Florida State.
Pundits often talk about “signature wins,” and landing Howell — ranked as the nation’s No. 3 quarterback prospect by the 247Sports Composite — provides Brown with a signature recruiting win only three weeks after taking the job, demonstrating proof of concept and signaling future recruits that Carolina is primed to win in the near future under this new staff. Howell is also an early enrollee and will be on campus in January, enabling him to get a head start on learning new offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s system.
In all, UNC managed to sign three of the state’s top 10 recruits: Howell, Miller, and West Mecklenberg wide receiver Khafre Brown, who spent the week building chemistry with Howell preparing for the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas.
STAT OF THE WEEK
17,036 — that’s Howell’s career total yards, a North Carolina state record, previously held by Independence’s Chris Leak (16,590 from 1998–2002). Leak went on to win a national championship as a starter in college.
Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.