Halfway through the ACC schedule, No. 5 North Carolina is 7-1 in the conference. Of course, each half of the league schedule isn’t exactly symmetrical. The Tar Heels have yet to play Duke, for instance, and will play the Blue Devils twice among the final eight conference games. The first of those meetings comes on Wednesday night at the Smith Center.
Still, the midway point provides a natural opportunity to evaluate where UNC stands as it prepares for the stretch run of the regular season before postseason play begins in about a month. That said, after eight conference games, here are eight things we’ve learned about the Heels to this point:
--This team has responded well from adversity.
The first half of the conference schedule provided North Carolina with two major tests: One, how would UNC bounce back from that 33-point loss at Florida State. And, two, how would the Tar Heels compensate for the loss of Dexter Strickland, who suffered a season-ending knee injury at Virginia Tech on Jan. 19. UNC hasn’t lost since that defeat at FSU, and the Heels collectively have raised their level of play – especially on defense – to make up for the loss of Strickland.
--This is a better defensive team than people realize.
There’s this perception that UNC is an average – or even below average – of defensive team. That perception, though, is wrong. In ACC games, the Heels are holding opponents to 40.5 percent shooting, which leads the ACC. The Tar Heels are also averaging 7.1 blocks per game in ACC games, which also leads the conference. UNC plays excellent defense, particularly inside the 3-point line (more on this momentarily).
--Reggie Bullock has adequately filled in for Dexter Strickland at shooting guard.
No, Bullock isn’t the on-the-ball defender that Strickland is, and he can’t guard opposing point guards the way Strickland did. But Bullock has improved tremendously as a defensive player, and one could argue his help defense – and his disruption in passing lanes – has improved UNC’s team defense. Plus, Bullock’s ability to shoot from the outside has helped open up the offense for some of his teammates.
--Production off the bench is a concern.
The loss of Strickland still hurts, however, because Bullock no longer is able to come off the bench. And that leaves the bench especially thin. Especially with P.J. Hairston struggling with his shot the way he has (6-for-33 from 3-point range in ACC games). James Michael McAdoo has become a more confident, productive player, but UNC still lacks a go-to guy off the bench.
--UNC does seem to be becoming a more intense, energetic team.
Intensity still comes in spurts for the Heels, who are still learning to play with intensity all the time – instead of just some of the time. But since that loss at Florida State, there has been a noticeable difference in the Tar Heels’ attitude. That’s not unexpected, given the difficult practices that coach Roy Williams led in the aftermath of what happened in Tallahassee, Fla.
--The Heels aren’t as soft on the interior as critics believe.
Yes, there are heavier, meaner frontcourts out there (see the one at Florida State, for instance), but UNC has done a lot to shed its soft label during the first half of the league schedule. The Tar Heels have mostly dominated on the interior, and Tyler Zeller has been as aggressive as any player in the ACC. At the halfway point of the conference schedule, Zeller is an obvious first-team All-ACC player, and he’s in the discussion for ACC Player of the Year.
--Teams that shoot well from the outside, and play good defense, can cause UNC problems.
Of course, teams that shoot well from the outside and that defend would cause problems for a lot of teams. As good as UNC has been defensively, though, the Heels remain susceptible to good 3-point shooting teams. UNC’s 3-point percentage defense ranks 9th in the ACC, and opposing teams are shooting 34.7 percent from 3-point range.
--Free-throw shooting is a liability.
UNC is shooting 68.1 percent in conference games from the free-throw line, which ranks 10th in the ACC. Overall, the Heels are shooting 65.1 percent from the line, which ranks last among ACC teams. UNC is bound to find itself in close games, especially in March, and poor free-throw shooting won’t do the Heels any favors.