North Carolina still has much to fix before its showdown with No. 1 Gonzaga in nine days

As North Carolina’s Kenny Williams was interviewed by reporters late Wednesday night, a flat screen television a few feet to the right of him showed No. 1 Gonzaga live in its game against Washington.

The game, which was being shown on the big screen, signified what’s looming.

On Dec. 15, No. 14 UNC will play Gonzaga (9-0) for the first time since it beat the Bulldogs in the 2017 NCAA National Championship game, 71-65.

When the two teams played then, the Tar Heels were the favorite. But this season, the Tar Heels (7-2) will likely enter as underdogs.

It will be UNC’s biggest test of the season through nine games.

“It could be a marquee win that goes a long way,” said Williams, a senior guard. “Because they’re going to be be top-five all season, because they are a great team. If we can pick up a win like that, it will be huge for us come tournament time.”

The Tar Heels are in need of a big win, especially after struggling late in November. Before Wednesday’s 97-69 win over UNCW, UNC had lost two of its last three games, including a 84-67 road loss to then-No. 7 Michigan. Its head coach, Roy Williams, had questioned his team’s effort in the loss to the Wolverines.

When asked about his team’s effort in their win on Wednesday, coach Williams said it was better than the Michigan game, “but not what we want it to be.”

Robert Willett

The Tar Heels beat the Seahawks by nearly 30 points, but they got off to a slow start.

In the first half, they appeared lethargic. They turned the ball over nine times, which was on pace to tie a season high, and at halftime, the Tar Heels led the Seahawks by nine points. UNCW managed to cut UNC’s lead to five points early in the second half.

“They came out and made two shots early and it was like we have to buckle down,” said graduate senior Cam Johnson, who finished with 21 points on 7-for-14 shooting Wednesday.

UNC seemed to miss freshman point guard Coby White, who was out with a sore ankle. White, who is averaging better than 15 points per game, had been UNC’s leading scorer over its last three games. Junior guard Seventh Woods replaced him in the starting lineup and scored seven points and had three assists.

Robert Willett

UNC would eventually answer UNCW with a 16-0 run, which ultimately put the game out of reach. But the slow start to Wednesday’s game magnified the challenges UNC faces before it plays a team many perceive to be the best in the country. The same issues that have plagued UNC in its losses to Texas and Michigan reappeared in the first half against UNCW.

Along with UNC’s nine first-half turnovers, UNCW had nine points off turnovers. The Seahawks also attempted 11 free throws in the first half, while the Tar Heels had four. That was one thing coach Williams said he was not pleased with.

“If you’re going to play basketball, you’re supposed to go to the free throw line, make free throw and keep the other team off the free throw line,” he said.

The Tar Heels have had trouble staying in front of their man on defense. It has resulted in poor fouls, and the Tar Heels sending their opponents to the free throw line too often.

UNC has attempted less free throws than its opponents in three games this season. The Tar Heels are 1-2 in those games with losses to Texas and Michigan. Last week, Michigan had 23 free throw attempts, while UNC had 13. Against Texas on Nov. 24, the Longhorns had 29 free throw attempts, while the Tar Heels had 21.

Gonzaga averages 98.4 points per game, which is the second highest in the country. A big reason for that is because its players get to the free throw line often. The Bulldogs average 27 free throw attempts per game.

During exams, which begin on Friday, the Tar Heels won’t practice much before the Gonzaga game. But they hope to make the few practices they do have count.

Freshman wing Nassir Little, who had 14 points Wednesday, was one of the many players not satisfied with how the team played. He said the Tar Heels need to compete harder.

Robert Willett

“I feel like if we just come out there ready to play, and we go play with passion and heart, I think we can beat anybody in the country,” he said, adding that they have to get a lot better. “I’m (gonna) be honest, I feel like we have a lot to focus in on, in order to compete with Gonzaga and win, because they are a good team.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
Support my work with a digital subscription