Friedlander: Tar Heel deja vu. Can UNC flip the switch and catch fire again?
North Carolina’s 80-59 win at Louisville on Saturday improved the Tar Heels’ record to 12-6 overall, 4-3 in the ACC.
If that sounds familiar, it should.
They had exactly the same records after 18 games a year ago.
Their averages of 80 points, 39.5 rebounds per game, a 47.2 shooting percentage and a 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio are also nearly identical, as are 4 of the 5 members of their regular starting lineup.
The only real difference between this UNC team and the one that went on to play for the national championship in New Orleans last spring are the expectations.
That 2021-22 team spent the better part of its 1st regular season under rookie head coach Hubert Davis fighting just to get off the bubble and into the NCAA field before catching lightning in a bottle come tournament time.
This group entered the current season stating that anything less than cutting down the nets on the 1st Monday in April would be a disappointment.
They started the season ranked No. 1 but cratered faster than Tesla stock. The Tar Heels were included on only 4 ballots in last week’s Associated Press poll, fewer than Florida Atlantic, Rutgers and all but 4 other teams receiving votes.
Their familiar position has created plenty of doubt and raised a number of questions, including the most frequently asked: Can they flip the same switch they did last year and do it again?
The simple answer is yes. But Davis and his team better not wait too long to do it.
Last season’s turnaround, which began in mid-February and hit full stride once the postseason began, was a great story. But the odds are against being able to duplicate it.
UNC was only the 6th No. 8 seed ever to make it to the Final 4 and the 4th to play in the championship game. And you can’t count on the top team in your region being without 2 injured starters and drawing a No. 15 seed from the Metro Atlantic in the Elite 8 every year.
In the Tar Heels’ defense, injuries have contributed to their slow start.
Two of their 3 ACC losses thus far can be directly attributed to the absence of star center Armando Bacot, who is averaging a double-double and making another strong case for ACC Player of the Year honors.
But that’s not the only reason.
At times, UNC has looked like a team that’s simply going through the motions, biding its time until the postseason arrives and it gets its shot at accomplishing its stated goal.
The 2017 team that faced a similar situation on the way to its national championship managed to avoid that trap. But it had a Hall of Fame head coach in Roy Williams, who was experienced in handling a team with lofty expectations.
That’s not the case this time.
Davis is still learning on the fly. But if last season proved anything, it’s that he’s a quick learner.
And while it’s only been in spurts — in overtime against Ohio State, the final 10 minutes against Wake Forest, the Notre Dame game and again in the 2nd half on Saturday at Louisville — his Tar Heels are already starting to show signs of resembling a team capable of winning 6 straight in March and April.
“I’ve talked to them a lot that in basketball, this year, with this team and in life, you’re gonna get knocked down. You’re gonna have rainy days and speed bumps and potholes,” Davis said after last week’s win against the Fighting Irish. “You can whine and complain and make excuses and point fingers and stay down, or you can get back up and continue to compete, continue to fight and continue to get better.
“This team has always responded in that way. That’s a sign of a tough team, a resilient team. That’s the type of team that I love being associated with and being around.”
For the Tar Heels to again become that kind of team, it’s going to take a more consistent effort on the defensive end of the floor as well as erratic point guard Caleb Love keeping everyone else involved instead of trying to take every shot by himself.
While Bacot and power forward Pete Nance need to get healthy and stay that way, their recent absence has helped Davis lengthen his bench at a time of the season when other coaches are beginning to shorten theirs.
Puff Johnson, who has also missed time with an injury, has shown signs of being the major contributor he became during last year’s tournament run, scoring in double figures and pulling down 6 rebounds in 2 of his 3 most recent games.
Freshman big man Jalen Washington had a breakout game in a loss at Virginia on Tuesday while sophomore guard D’Marco Dunn set career highs with 14 points, 5 field goals and 5 rebounds in Saturday’s drubbing of lowly Louisville.
The added depth provides UNC with an element last year’s team lacked.
And it could be the key that helps this group of Tar Heels emerge from their midseason deja vu and continue on to an even more familiar finish.