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UNC basketball went 2-1 in this year's Maui Invitational. Here's what we learned

UNC men's basketball team talks during a time-out of the championship game of the Maui Invitational Tournament in Asheville, N.C. on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. UNC lost the championship to Texas 69-67. Photo courtesy of Brian Spurlock/Camping World Maui Invitational.

The No. 14 North Carolina basketball team fell to No. 17 Texas on Wednesday, 69-67, clawing back from a 12-point first-half deficit only to see Longhorn guard Matt Coleman III nail a game-winning jumper with 0.1 seconds left. 

The loss moves UNC to 3-1, denying them a Maui Invitational championship and exposing some early-season flaws that head coach Roy Williams and company will look to patch up. Here are three takeaways from the game — and the Maui tournament as a whole.

Free throws, free throws, free throws

“There were a lot of things we could’ve done better,” center Armando Bacot said plainly after the game.

Yup. The Tar Heels shot just 1-9 from 3-point range against the Longhorns, committed 14 turnovers — eight of which were in the first 11 minutes of play — and did little to stymie the opposition from deep, allowing Texas to sink nine of 22 3-point attempts themselves. 

Despite all that, though, Bacot could’ve been striking a much different tone postgame if the Tar Heels weren’t a dreadful 18 of 32 from the free throw line. In a game decided by a single possession, that can’t happen.

“We missed three free throws in the last two minutes,” Williams said. “At the end of the game, you’ve got to make three throws.”

This season, UNC is shooting 61.9 percent from the line through four games — not good, but especially worrying for a team so reliant on paint points and offensive production in the front court. The combination of Bacot, Garrison Brooks, Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler was 10 for 20 from the stripe on Wednesday; combine that with any other poor offensive metric — shoddy outside shooting, a bad case of the turnover bug — and you’ve got a recipe for disaster, one North Carolina is all too familiar with after last season.

Backcourt still a work in progress

There’s no cause to overreact here. In college basketball, a first-year point guard who shows up with everything together is the exception, not the rule. It’s even rarer in Chapel Hill, where everyone from Raymond Felton to Joel Berry II has spoken openly about the struggles of learning Williams’ fast-paced system.

The question, as always, is how quickly the next batch of UNC guards can adapt. Consider this year’s backcourt basically on schedule in that regard.

RJ Davis has been North Carolina’s most consistently impressive rookie, having reached double-digit points in every game so far including a team-high 16 against UNLV. But he also has the benefit of not having to handle the ball full-time; he’s notched just six assists this season to go along with eight turnovers. 

More worrying for Tar Heel fans is Caleb Love, who coughed it up five times against Stanford and four times against Texas and hasn’t yet shot above 50 percent from the field in a game this season. 

Still, cooler heads should prevail on this one. Patience is a virtue, and all that. Coby White, for example, shot just 37 percent and averaged 2.4 turnovers through his first handful of college games. That season, Williams and his team harped on their continued belief in White; the same generosity should (and will) be extended to Love.

“You’ve gotta shoot a higher percentage,” Williams said of his point guard. “Zero assists, four turnovers, that’s not good. But I love him to death as a kid. He’s gonna work really hard, and I think he’s going to learn all those things.”

In the meantime...

The offense should run through Brooks

The Preseason ACC Player of the Year has had a decent start to 2020-21, recording games of 14 points against UNLV and 18 points against the Longhorns. But one gets the feeling Garrison Brooks is capable of more. That’d mean a steadier diet of plays and shots for the senior forward, plus a smidge more aggression on his part when he’s in scoring position. 

Against No. 3 Iowa on Tuesday, for example, expect Williams to lean on the veteran Brooks — not just setting the tone defensively against the Hawkeyes’ Luka Garza, but carrying the bulk of the scoring load, showing his teammates the way on both ends.

“We’re still learning, still getting better every day,” Brooks said after the Texas loss.

Through four games, that’s been the theme of the Tar Heels’ season. They haven’t blown anybody’s doors off, but they’ve done enough to show they’ll be a tough opponent come March. (In case you didn’t believe that before the year started.)

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If history’s any indication, the backcourt will continue to progress. And some additional free throw shooting in practice will do the Tar Heels some good. In the meantime, though, leaning on Brooks seems to be the move, allowing this iteration of North Carolina plenty of time to reach its final form, whatever that might be.


@DTHSports |