North Carolina Bounces Back With Big Win Over Gonzaga

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 17th, 2018

After getting blown out at Michigan as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Roy Williams made some terse comments about the current state of his team — basically saying that North Carolina “stinks,” and that he was doing a poor job coaching his squad. In the Tar Heels’ first real test since that evening, his team laid the wood on Gonzaga, 103-90, Saturday night in the Smith Center. Senior forwards Luke Maye and Cam Johnson led the way as Williams’ team once again looked the part of a legitimate national contender.

Luke Maye won his individual battle with Rui Hachimura in North Carolina’s weekend victory over Gonzaga. (photo credit:

After a very successful junior campaign, Maye has to date had a disappointing senior year. His key offensive numbers are down – both in terms of scoring (14.3 versus 16.9 PPG) and shooting (45.0% versus 48.6% FG) — but he got the better of Gonzaga All-America candidate Rui Hachimura on Saturday night. Maye finished with 20 points and 16 rebounds in the winning effort while Hachimura contributed 17 points and six rebounds. One area where Maye has improved this season is at the free throw stripe. After making all seven of his tries against Gonzaga, he is now shooting 79.5 percent on the season (after converting only 62.4 percent of his freebies a year ago).

North Carolina also made a season high 13 three-pointers against the Zags with Johnson chiefly responsible (6-of-8 3FG). Williams has been waiting for a break-out shooting performance, saying after the game, “I’ve been telling Cam [Johnson], Kenny [Williams] and Luke [Maye] that you guys are our best shooters — how ’bout trying to be our best makers?” A regular strength of the North Carolina program is its work on the boards and that was hugely evident on Saturday as well. Gonzaga entered the contest ranked among the 50 best offensive rebounding teams in college basketball, but the Zags managed to only grab five of its 33 misses against the Tar Heels. Meanwhile, North Carolina converted 14 offensive boards into 27 points. As Mark Few said afterward, “They just pounded us on the glass, too. […] The shots we did get them to miss, they usually got the rebound and put it back in.”

There are still some areas of concern with this North Carolina team, mainly on the defensive end. As Williams said, “It’s [defense] been our problem. It’s still our problem.” Other than the Heels’ stellar defensive rebounding (17th nationally), North Carolina does not excel in any other area on that end of the floor — ranking 142nd in forcing turnovers; 128th in effective field goal percentage defense; and 206th in opponents’ free throw rate. Its fast pace does the defense no favors. With an average possession length of just 13.5 seconds (3rd lowest in the country), the Heels can be prone to quick shots and turnovers that enable opponents to attack them in transition – e.g, Gonzaga scored 29 points on 23 turnovers.

Another lingering question is the role of star freshman forward Nassir Little on this club. Despite projections as a top-five NBA Draft pick, Little is only averaging about 20 minutes per contest in a reserve role. Part of the problem (if it is in fact a problem) is that he is playing behind two seniors – Maye and Johnson – who are currently better college players than he is. The alternative would be to go small (Little replacing center Garrison Brooks), or even bigger (Little replacing guard Kenny Williams). We saw a few minutes of each scenario against Gonzaga, but not enough to make any solid judgments about how those lineups would hold up over extended time. So despite the perceived negative impact that Little’s current playing status will have on future recruiting, we expect – barring injuries – Williams will continue to bring his prized prospect off the bench. And given North Carolina’s defensive issues, it probably doesn’t make sense to take either his best defensive post player (Brooks) or top perimeter defender (Williams) off the floor to make way for an inexperienced rookie.

Brad Jenkins (383 Posts)

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