After pulling off the unthinkable against Duke, the No. 25 UNC men's basketball team might have finally found the blueprint it needs to survive March.
Saturday’s instant classic has several lessons the team could use in preparation for the postseason. Here’s what needs to happen for No. 3 seed North Carolina to win the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn.
High post action with RJ Davis
Whether it was a pinpoint pass or contested layup, sophomore guard RJ Davis showed all the signs of being the poised floor general UNC has lacked in recent years.
Most of those scoring opportunities stemmed from high post action. UNC’s bigs, graduate forward Brady Manek and junior forward Armando Bacot, often set double screens for both Davis and each other, depending on Duke’s coverage.
It was the most effective method head coach Hubert Davis used against Duke to maximize the trio’s skill sets.
RJ Davis, though undersized, can blow by bigger defenders if they hedge the screen.
Manek, who leads the team in 3-pointers, can’t be given any space to shoot. And Bacot, UNC’s leading scorer, proved he can post up on elite defenders like Duke's Mark Williams, who was recently named ACC Defensive Player of the Year — Bacot just needs room to operate.
The triad scored 14 of UNC’s 19 second-half field goals against Duke, shooting an efficient 66.7 percent together. If RJ Davis, Manek and Bacot play with the same synergy as they did on Coach K Court, their combined arsenal will give any defense trouble.
Keep Bacot out of foul trouble
When Bacot is on the bench, Hubert Davis can scrap the entire aforementioned game plan.
Bacot’s 87 personal fouls is a team high. Without North Carolina’s sole paint presence, opposing defenses — who often double-team Bacot — shift their focus toward the perimeter, often forcing UNC’s backcourt to settle for contested triples.
Although Bacot only had two fouls against Duke, he was sidelined immediately after registering each one. He was also benched after getting away with a potential charge — which would’ve been his third foul in the first half — on Williams, who was called for blocking.
While RJ Davis and Manek never left the floor, Bacot only played around 10 minutes in the first half.
The absence was felt — North Carolina outscored Duke by nine points with Bacot and were outscored by 11 without him.
And when Bacot is sidelined, Manek and Davis have proven to be the only other dependable scoring options in the first half.
Early patience from Caleb Love
Sophomore guard Caleb Love finished with 22 points against Duke, but don’t be fooled — he shot 23.5 percent from the field and went 2-7 from downtown.
Yes, those two triples halted Duke’s momentum. But they most likely wouldn’t have been so pivotal if Love hadn’t gone 1-9 from the field before halftime, as opposed to the rest of the team shooting 48.1 percent.
Love’s slow, errant starts have been a consistent theme this season. For instance, he went 2-9 from the field in the first half against Pittsburgh, Miami and Syracuse. And last month, he was 0-6 in the first half of the 87-67 blowout loss to Duke in the Dean E. Smith Center.
Moreover, over half his points on Saturday night came from free throws. Make no mistake — Love is elite from the charity stripe, having made all but three of his 55 free-throw attempts since Jan. 29.
But the explosive guard has a much higher ceiling when he plays more methodically. So, instead of settling for a step-back 30-footer with ample time to spare, Love needs to improve his shot selection or distribute the ball more.
He’s averaged 4.4 assists over UNC’s five-game winning streak, well above his season average of 3.7 assists. If Love plays with more composure immediately after tip-off, there won’t be a need for the late-game heroics he’s known for.
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