After losing in the national championship game in April, the AP preseason No. 1, UNC, has lost three in a row early in the season.
The Tar Heels spent their first five games barely outlasting mid-major opponents with wins over Gardner-Webb by six and Portland by nine. Even the wins where the final margin suggested a blowout were deceiving. UNC beat Charleston by 16 but trailed as late as 12 minutes remaining in the second half.
For all we know, these Tar Heels may turn out to be really good, win their conference, and go to the NCAA tournament. Charleston won the Charleston Classic not long after this and Portland had a chance to beat Michigan State with the final shot of the game. That’s kind of the point though. The best team in the country should blow these teams out anyway.
In their two later games of this weekend’s Phil Knight Invitational, the Heels got their first taste of high-major competition against Iowa State and Alabama and came up short both times. Their next game was at Indiana in and they lost that one as well, 77-65.
This year’s UNC squad has many of the same problems as last season, namely a lack of depth. Carolina barely plays anyone outside of its starting five — and it caught up to the team in its 4-OT loss to Alabama, as the Heels got tired after playing 50 minutes. It’s a small miracle that this problem didn’t manifest itself more in last year’s NCAA tournament.
Their starting five — which features Armando Bacot, who most publications named to their preseason all-American teams, and Caleb Love who’s also in that conversation — may be really good, but if those guys get into foul trouble then there isn’t much UNC can do.
Bacot, UNC’s best player, didn’t have a field goal attempt in the third or fourth OT because of both a rolled ankle and having four fouls. Love had 34 points, which seems impressive until you see he was 13-of-36 from the floor. Normally if someone is shooting 36.1 percent from the field, they’ll stop before they get to 36 attempts, but again, the problem is they have so few options unless you want Puff Johnson to create his own shots off the dribble.
I also think the loss of a starter from last year has affected Carolina. You might remember the well-bearded stretch four, Brady Manek. The Heels lost him to graduation (another one gone before his time) and replaced him with Pete Nance (yes, of those Nances).
Ironically, they fit almost identical molds. Both transferred to UNC as grad students, Manek from Oklahoma, and Nance from Northwestern. Their UNC averages are 15.1 and 12.3 points per game, 6.1 and 5.9 rebounds per game, and 40.3 and 35.5 three-point percentages, respectively. It seems like head coach Hubert Davis knew exactly what he wanted from the transfer portal and it was Brady Manek 2.0. The duo’s highest-scoring games at UNC are even the same at 28.
Despite the similarities, the change feels noticeable. Manek had the potential to take over games. Only eight times in his 39 games at North Carolina was he held to single-digit scoring. Nance has had four single-digit scoring games through eight games. He just disappears far too much.
Most college basketball viewers only start watching once it’s the NCAA tournament, and last year they saw North Carolina advance to the national championship game. Many of them probably also tuned in to see North Carolina beat Duke in Coach K’s final home game. What those viewers didn’t see was the majority of the season when the Tar Heels were on the bubble. When UNC lost to Kentucky by 29 last December, it just looked mediocre. Not even a tournament team, just a bad one.
The Heels turned a corner and of course, got hot at the right time, but they were an 8-seed in the tournament for a reason.