UNC basketball has been defined by inconsistent play this season, but two metrics serve as huge indicators for the Tar Heels.
Through the first two months of the college basketball season, the only consistent thing about the North Carolina Tar Heels has been their inconsistency.
UNC will go through stretches in which it looks like the preseason No. 1 team in the country, showing flashes of the group that came within a few baskets of winning the national championship last season. However, those stretches are often sandwiched between periods of sloppiness and overall lackluster play.
Poor shot selection, non-existent ball movement and turnovers played a huge role in causing North Carolina’s four-game losing streak in late November and early December, a streak that dropped the Heels completely out of the rankings.
“Sometimes we take a deep breath [during a game], and we can’t take a deep breath,” star big man Armando Bacot told reporters following UNC’s 88-79 victory over Wake Forest on Wednesday. “We feel like we’ve given away three or four games because of that.”
“There were moments where we should’ve closed out but didn’t,” fellow starter RJ Davis recounted. “We relaxed.”
That game against the Demon Deacons perfectly encapsulated North Carolina’s season as a whole thus far and also demonstrated two major keys to unlocking their full potential.
Early on, it looked like a game the Heels would control as expected. They built a seven-point lead in the first 12 minutes by playing great defense, forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. But a 13-5 run from Wake Forest late in the half ultimately gave the Deacons the lead going into the break.
That run continued into the second half until, as Bacot put it, the Heels dug in. They outscored the Demon Deacons, 36-21, over the final 13:40 with Bacot and Davis — who had 22 points in the second half — serving as the catalysts.
Caleb Love and Leaky Black are certainly important factors for UNC along with role players like Pete Nance and Seth Trimble, but the Heels have consistently shown that they’re at their best when Bacot and Davis are running the show.
Davis often plays second-fiddle to Love when it comes to usage rate because of Love’s ball-dominant play. But Davis can be just as productive — sometimes even more so. When he is, the Tar Heels flourish. They’ve posted a 40-8 mark over the past three seasons when Davis has an offensive rating of 100 or greater. The Heels are just 17-18 when he doesn’t.
This season, the junior has posted an offensive rating of 112 or lower six times. UNC is 1-5 in those games compared to 9-0 when he’s over that mark, a lot of which Davis says comes down to a matter of mindset.
“I focus on just being more aggressive in getting to my spots and being confident in my work. I believe in myself and the work I put in, so I’m going to continue to build off what I’ve been practicing.”
Davis’ efficiency is one step, but simply getting Bacot involved offensively is the other — and the most important step for Carolina to be at its best. Through his time in Chapel Hill, UNC is a sparkling 26-5 when Bacot has at least 11 shot attempts. When he’s held to 10 or fewer, that mark drops to a less-than-stellar 44-35.
That has nothing to do with efficiency or production, just attempts. A former five-star prospect and now two-time All-ACC selection, Bacot is one of the nation’s best big men who demands attention from opposing defenses, which opens up everything else in UNC’s offense.
“For him to be a beast down there and get all that attention drawn to him, it makes things easier for us on the perimeter. There’s more room to operate,” Davis explained. “He’s a selfless player.”
Bacot’s lack of usage was a hot topic during Carolina’s rocky start. He only hit the 11-attempt threshold three times in the first nine games of the season. In the six games since, he has hit it five times with the only outlier being a blowout victory over The Citadel.
There are more plays being called for the star senior and the guards are looking to feed the post more now than they were early, but Bacot says the shift in usage has also come with him working harder for touches.
“A lot of times in those stretches, I’m tired or not posting up as hard,” he explained. “I need to do a better job with that. It’s a lot of back and forth but I try to deliver when Coach puts the ball in my hands.”
With the calendar flipping to 2023 and conference play fully underway, this veteran Tar Heels group knows it needs to ramp up and consistently play at a high level, not just in stretches.
“I told the team before the game [against Wake Forest] that it’s time,” head coach Hubert Davis told reporters. “It’s time to go.”
If North Carolina is going to go where it ended up last season, Bacot and Davis will need to step up.