Six moments that have defined 2018 for UNC men's basketball
From ACC win streaks, to an early NCAA Tournament exit, to standout first-years, it has been an eventful year for the program.
On Jan. 9, with his team 1-2 in the ACC and 12-4 on the season, Roy Williams made a lineup adjustment that ended up changing UNC’s season.
Ahead of a home game against Boston College, the head coach decided to give graduate transfer Cameron Johnson his first start as a Tar Heel. Johnson replaced forward Garrison Brooks in the frontcourt, joining a starting lineup of Joel Berry II, Kenny Williams, Theo Pinson and Luke Maye.
The results were immediate. Then-No. 20 UNC routed the Eagles, 96-66. The Tar Heels scored more points in the first half (50) than they did the entirety of their previous loss at Virginia (49). Maye scored a then-career-high 32 as the team moved back to .500 in conference play. For players, coaches and fans alike, it was a relief.
“I've got really good kids, they care about what other people think,” Roy Williams said after the win. “I tell them just shut up and play. But I think they started feeling a little pressure.”
That swap in the starting five paid dividends, as UNC rode the lineup for the rest of the season. Here are five more moments that have defined North Carolina men’s basketball in 2018 — from conference play to tournaments to the start of a new season.
Little defense behind the arc
The Tar Heels’ struggles in defending 3-pointers were well documented last season.
In 37 games, UNC’s opponents made 357 3s. That was the most allowed by any of the 351 teams playing Division I basketball in 2017-18. North Carolina gave up 10 or more 3s 20 times last season.
And a three-game losing streak in late January couldn’t have made this statistic more obvious.
It started on Jan. 22, when UNC lost to Virginia Tech, 80-69, on the road. The Hokies made 12 of 30 3s. Five days later, N.C. State made 15 of 30 threes in a 95-91 upset win over the Tar Heels in the Smith Center. In that game, Wolfpack guard Allerik Freeman was a perfect 7-7 from downtown, tying the ACC record for most threes in a game without a miss.
And then, on Jan. 30, North Carolina lost on the road to Clemson for the first time in eight years. The Tigers made 15 of 30 threes in their 82-78 win. The totals from that nine-day stretch were staggering: opponents made 42 of 90 3-pointers at an absurd 46.7-percent clip.
That time frame also saw the suspension of first-year guard Jalek Felton from the University, announced on the morning of the Clemson game. (Felton withdrew from UNC on March 1 and signed with a Slovenian team this summer).
After its first three-game losing streak since 2014, UNC rattled off six consecutive ACC wins.
It started with a home win over Pittsburgh, Johnson’s first against the Panthers after three years with the program. The postgame antics of then-Pittsburgh coach Kevin Stallings were the talk of the night.
Then came UNC’s biggest home win of the year: an 82-78 victory over Duke. The No. 21 Tar Heels were led by Williams, who had 20 points and tied a UNC record for most threes against the Blue Devils with six. Johnson had 18 points and a career-high 13 rebounds. Pinson iced the game with a monstrous dunk.
Maye dropped a career-high 33 against N.C. State in UNC’s next win, including 27 in the second half. The Tar Heels, fresh off beating both of their top rivals, then proceeded to take down Notre Dame, Louisville and Syracuse.
Pinson shines in ACC Tournament
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Pinson’s senior season at North Carolina was undoubtedly his best, and his early performances in the 2018 ACC Tournament proved it.
He started off with 16 points, 11 rebounds and six assists against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. In a quarterfinal win against Miami, the wing had a career-high 25 points. That led the Tar Heels into a semifinal matchup with Duke, which had beat them in Durham the weekend before.
With 5:33 left in the game, UNC led, 72-56. But the team imploded from there, failing to score in the next five minutes. Duke had a chance at a game-tying 3-pointer, but Grayson Allen’s shot was off and two free throws from Pinson sealed a 74-69 win.
To win the ACC title in Brooklyn, North Carolina needed four wins in four days. No UNC team had ever done that before in a conference tournament. And against top-seeded Virginia, 30-2 headed into the game, UNC came up short in a 71-63 loss.
Leaving Charlotte with a loss
Before the Tar Heels’ season ended in Charlotte, Spectrum Center looked like the perfect place for the team to begin its quest for a second consecutive NCAA title.
North Carolina, a two seed, beat 15-seed Lipscomb comfortably in the first round. In an 84-66 win, UNC locked down the Bisons’ leading scorer, Garrison Mathews, to eight points on 3-14 shooting.
But against seventh-seeded Texas A&M, everything fell apart. The Aggies’ front line of the post-saavy Tyler Davis and the springy Robert Williams III — both 6-foot-10 and now in the NBA — outworked UNC all game long.
Texas A&M routed UNC, 86-65, dropping the team to 34-2 all time in NCAA Tournament games in the state of North Carolina. A tearful Berry and Pinson checked out of the game for a final time. The season was over.
Eight games in
Through eight games, the 14th-ranked Tar Heels have provided a small glimpse of how their 2018-19 season may progress.
UNC (6-2) is scoring at an excellent rate. The team is averaging 92.9 points per game, seventh in the country, and has broken the 100-point threshold three times — against Elon,Tennessee Tech and Saint Francis. Johnson and Maye have been offensive stalwarts, averaging 15 and 14 points, respectively.
Coby White and Nassir Little, two five-star recruits, have already showcased their talents. Little is averaging 11.8 points and 19.5 minutes per game, with some eye-popping alley oops to boot. White has led the team in scoring each of the last three games, and his 33 points against Texas are the third most ever by a UNC first-year.
UNC’s two losses, however, hint at similar struggles. Texas made 11 of 24 threes and forced 17 turnovers. Michigan, now ranked fifth in the country, made 11 of 22. At least twice this season, Williams, frustrated with his team's defensive effort, has floated the idea of taking the rims off the goals at practice.
But this team's story, for the most part, remains to be told.