For UNC, the Hubert Davis era could have had a better start. Especially on the defensive end.
The North Carolina men’s basketball team has dropped two of three games it has played against top-25 teams to start the season. The Tar Heels allowed their opponents to score over 80 points in four of their first five games — including a particularly ugly showing in a win over Brown.
And, for now, UNC is unranked in December for a third consecutive year.
But consider where the market was trending on the Tar Heels this time in the previous two campaigns, and think about where it’s heading now. An odd dominant performance against a tournament-hopeful — say, the Tar Heels’ win over No. 24 Michigan on Wednesday — has happened on occasion in the previous two seasons (see: last year’s 99-54 triumph over Louisville.)
But two in a row? Well, that just hasn’t happened. But on Sunday, UNC showed signs that the trend of inconsistency might be coming to an end, as the Tar Heels put on a second half clinic in Atlanta, beating ACC foe Georgia Tech, 79-62.
“Wednesday, we played really well,” Davis said. “But it didn’t mean anything if we didn’t show up and play well again today.”
A large part of UNC’s improvement over the last two games can be attributed to the defensive end of the court.
The Yellow Jackets entered Sunday scoring over 74 points per game, and the Tar Heels held them to just 62, Georgia Tech's second-lowest total of the season. Wednesday’s contest against Michigan was a similar story, as UNC held the Wolverines to a season-low of 51.
Watching the Tar Heels now, it’s hard to imagine this was a team that allowed Brown and College of Charleston to score a combined 170 points against them in a two-game stretch less than a month ago.
“We weren’t active early on in the season,” sophomore guard Caleb Love said. “But these past two games, we’ve just been locked in. Playing the active gaps, getting steals, helping the helper.”
Georgia Tech senior Michael Devoe entered Sunday’s game as the leading scorer in college basketball — averaging 25 points per contest. The Tar Heels — namely, Devoe’s primary defender, Leaky Black — held the senior to 15 points, his second-lowest output of the season.
While UNC didn’t contain Georgia Tech the entire game, even as the Yellow Jackets went on a 13-0 run and knocked down 62.5 percent of their first half threes, North Carolina kept pace, entering halftime tied at 31.
And in the second half, after the Tar Heels made the necessary defensive adjustments, the offense didn't slow down a bit — pulling away easily as Georgia Tech’s shooting clips regressed to the mean.
“I think (the Tar Heels) are really good,” Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner said. “I said it multiple times in the ACC media day. When we were there I said ‘There’s not enough people talking about North Carolina this year.’”
The possibility of a blue-blood program like North Carolina flying under the radar can be hard to comprehend — but after the last two years, it shouldn’t be entirely surprising.
The Tar Heels have not been consistent, and have rarely beaten good teams. But on Sunday, they ticked both boxes: earning a second consecutive win over a tournament-hopeful team and winning with relative ease.
“(Davis) loves the game, he puts his all into this game,” Love said. “He does a lot for us, so we just want to give that back to him, show our appreciation for him through our play.”
Now, the hard part comes. The Tar Heels have to remain consistent. With the season still less than a month young, UNC is only slated to play three more games against teams currently in the top-25: twice against No. 1 Duke and once against No. 5 UCLA. The KenPom rankings have only the Blue Devils ranked ahead of North Carolina in the ACC.
But for the Tar Heels to take advantage of what looks to be another ‘down’ year in the ACC and play deeper into March, they’ll have to keep doing what they did Sunday and for the last week, steadily improving until they’re impossible to ignore.
So consider again, with a steadily improving team with the potential to climb even higher, could the Davis era really have gotten off to a better start?
“A lot of people came up after Wednesday’s game and said ‘That was Carolina basketball. That was a Carolina win,'" Davis said. “And I told them, Carolina basketball is showing up on Sunday, every time you step out on the floor.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.