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Thursday September 29th

Q&A: Analyst and former Tar Heel K.J. Smith speaks on UNC's postseason outlook

<p>ACC Network Analyst and former Tar Heel KJ Smith poses with Rameses at the ACC Men's Basketball Tournament on March 11, 2022 at the Barclays Center. Photo courtesy of Jeff Armstrong.</p>
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ACC Network Analyst and former Tar Heel KJ Smith poses with Rameses at the ACC Men's Basketball Tournament on March 11, 2022 at the Barclays Center. Photo courtesy of Jeff Armstrong.

In October, former UNC basketball player K.J. Smith announced that he would be joining ESPN’s ACC Network to contribute to the network’s basketball coverage. Smith, who was a member of the Tar Heels' roster from 2017 to 2021, has since been delivering news on all 15 ACC basketball teams.

Daily Tar Heel Senior Writer Shelby Swanson sat down with Smith on Monday to talk about his thoughts on UNC’s postseason prospects ahead of the ACC Tournament.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Daily Tar Heel: Anybody that keeps up with ACC basketball knows that the conference tournament is a completely different beast. Could you touch on, from a player’s perspective, the atmosphere and competitiveness of the tournament and what makes it so different from the regular season?

K.J. Smith: Well, it’s officially March, so this is the time where it’s tournament time — it’s winning time. It’s when you can mark your name in history and every game is win or go home, so it means everything. This is the part of the season where everybody knows who they are, you’ve played everybody and the scouting is the same.

DTH: You were a part of UNC’s 2018 team that made a run to the ACC Tournament championship game in Brooklyn, and you beat Duke in the semifinals to get there. What sticks out to you about that tournament run?

KS: It’s not often that you can compete for a championship. There’s three times a year as a college player you can compete for a championship. In preseason tournaments you can do it, in the ACC Tournament and you can do it in the national tournament. This is why you see all of these teams are bringing their best effort.

For example, UNC has a double-bye. They’re preparing for both teams today, three days in advance. They started watching film right after the Duke game. A lot of people are celebrating and the coaches are already watching film. So it’s the little stuff that people don’t know about that goes into preparing for these teams.

For me it was being Trevon Duval in practice, and our center Walker Miller being Marvin Bagley III, and I remember Caleb Ellis was Grayson Allen. So we’re already practicing these types of things in practice to where we’re doing different scenarios and running their drills. And you realize how important the whole team is. And especially for me, I remember going into those practices thinking, ‘This is my game, this is how I’m going to prepare the team.’ I felt like I had just as vital a role as Joel Berry II did on that team because I was going hard in practice every day and making him better, especially in the playoff time.

But the amount of focus that is required for these teams going into this tournament, you have to think every game is like a championship game, so it brings out the best basketball.

DTH: What are some keys that UNC needs to keep in mind when preparing for the tournament?

KS: Everyone knows what your first, second and third option are. So a key thing that we see in a lot of tournament games is certain role players stepping up. Whether that be a Puff Johnson coming in and having those 16 points (against N.C. State) or Justin McKoy coming in and having those big three minutes. You’re going to see certain role players step up in those big moments because guys get in foul trouble, guys get hurt playing so many games in so few days.

When guys step up that aren’t necessarily on the scouting report, that’s when you see a lot of upsets happen. Everybody knows that UNC’s gonna try to throw it to Armando (Bacot), or they’re looking for Brady (Manek) on the pop three. But when RJ Davis has 20 and Caleb (Love) has 20, and then other role guys are stepping in and hitting big shots, it’s hard to prepare for all those different options.

DTH: What is your impression of this year’s team compared to teams you’ve been on here at UNC?

KS: This is my first time watching as a former player, and I’ve been proud. They’ve been battled all season long and toward the end they really brought it together, so I’m proud of how they fought back.

I’ve learned to appreciate what the UNC team has done, especially watching more of the other games around the ACC and how teams continue to have up-and-down seasons, but UNC has had a steady growth to be in that third place position. At one point they were one game away from being first in the ACC. So I’ve loved how they’ve battled all year long, especially for having a new head coach.

DTH: What stands out to you so far in Hubert Davis’ inaugural year as head coach?

KS: What stands out to me is how he’s put supreme confidence in his players to just play their best basketball. Leaky Black wasn’t always a great shooter or defender, but now he’s doing both at an excellent job. Caleb Love’s shot percentage is up. Armando was second in the voting for (ACC) Player of the Year. RJ Davis is having a great season. Brady Manek is having a great season after transferring. Everyone’s stats are improving.

I just love the confidence he puts into his players and he did that as an assistant coach, and he’s not shy about it. He said it before anybody else was thinking about it that ‘I think Armando’s player of the year,’ and he came second in voting. So I think he spoke that into existence.

DTH: What role do you think the ACC Tournament is going to play in preparing UNC for the big dance at the end of this?

KS: A big role. The win against Duke propelled them going into this tournament, which is a huge confidence builder. But let’s say you win it, then you’re already considered a champion going into the big tournament. So that’s a huge accomplishment, not just going into the (NCAA Tournament). (An ACC championship) is something that’s going to be etched in stone forever. You get a banner in the rafters, you get a ring, so you can already consider yourself a champion. And that’s something that very few people can do.

@shelbymswanson

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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