UNC Is Better Than Last Season,
But Exactly How Much Better?

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

North Carolina coach Hubert Davis recently was asked to assess his team after its 8-3 start to the 2023-24 season.

“I feel like we’re good,” Davis said, “but we’ve got a long way to go.”

The evidence suggests he’s right on both counts.

In fact, a closer look at the details indicates that this year’s Tar Heels have fewer weaknesses and more strengths than last year’s team, which infamously went from a preseason #1 ranking to somehow missing the NCAA Tournament entirely.

Slightly Better: 11-Game Record

After 11 games last season, the Tar Heels were 7-4, and they had lost their ACC opener to a middling Virginia Tech team that went on to finish 19-15 and play in the NIT.

After 11 games this season, the Tar Heels are 8-3, and they won their ACC opener against a middling Florida State team that has opened the 2023-24 campaign with a 6-5 record. UNC is ranked #9 in the Associated Press poll, and two of its three losses are to teams (#5 Connecticut, #8 Kentucky) now ranked in the national top 10.

Advantage: current Tar Heels.

Much Better: Quality Wins Early

At this time last season, the Tar Heels had lost to each of the three toughest opponents they had faced: Alabama, Indiana and Iowa State. Those teams went on to become #1, #4 and #6 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, respectively.

The closest thing the Tar Heels had to quality wins by late December in 2022 were those against College of Charleston, Ohio State and Michigan. However, the Buckeyes (16-19) and Wolverines (18-16) proved to be mediocre, and the Cougars became only a #12 seed in the Big Dance.

This year, although the Heels are only 3-3 against their six toughest opponents, they did beat Tennessee (100-92), Arkansas (87-72) and Oklahoma (81-69) in the early going. The Razorbacks beat Duke immediately following their loss to the Tar Heels, and the Volunteers and Sooners have been in and around the top 10 teams nationally in the efficiency and/or AP rankings so far this season.

The 2023-24 Carolina squad continues its season today (8 pm, ACCN), when it takes on 4-8 Charleston Southern in Chapel Hill.

Much Better: Ball Movement

From the Dean Smith era (1961-97) through the Roy Williams era (2003-21) and on most of its teams in between, UNC has been famous for, among many other things, unselfish passing, quick ball movement, and one of the fastest fastbreaks in college basketball.

Last year, with veteran guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis (pictured above) trying to share point guard duties but neither a natural fit for the position, the Tar Heels had none of those things. Their pace slowed, there was way too much dribbling in the frontcourt, and their assist-turnover ratios were either atrocious (Love) or mediocre (Davis) by UNC point guard standards.

This year, Carolina is playing “Carolina basketball” much more regularly.

The Tar Heels are playing at the fastest tempo among ACC teams, they’re assisting on 50 percent of their field goals (up from a woeful 46 percent last season), and their top six perimeter players all have more assists than turnovers. Freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau (41 assists, 16 turnovers) isn’t far from a sparkling 3-1 assist-turnover ratio.

Much Better: 3-Point Shooting

A year ago, this situation deteriorated to the point of absurdity.

It’s extremely rare that the highest-volume long-range shooter on any team would have an accuracy rate of less than 30 percent from 3-point range, but that’s exactly what happened with Love (the team leader, by far, in both field goal attempts and 3-point tries) in 2022-23. As a team, the Tar Heels finished at 31 percent on threes, dead-last in the ACC.

This season, UNC ranks in the upper half of the ACC (sixth), at almost 36 percent, well above the national average of 33 percent. Among ACC teams, only Miami and Clemson, which are both around 40 percent, are hitting 3-pointers at a significantly better rate than the Tar Heels.

Davis is taking the most 3-pointers, and he’s making them at a 38-percent clip, which is a couple percentage points above his career average. Transfer Harrison Ingram also is shooting a lot of threes, and he’s making them at a 44-percent clip, far above the 32-percent rate he had over his two seasons at Stanford.

Transfer Cormac Ryan is the only other UNC player taking a lot of threes so far this season, and while he’s making only 29 percent (well below the 36-percent rate he had at Notre Dame), he did recently make four of his seven attempts during a 20-point night against Kentucky.

Slightly Better: Bench Options

Last season, Davis had so little faith in his bench that UNC used its backups for only 18 percent of the team’s total minutes. That ranked 360th among 362 Division One teams.

This season, UNC’s reserves are getting about 27 percent of the team’s total playing time, which is still below the national average (about 31 percent) but much closer to normal.

Sophomore guard Seth Trimble (16 mpg), senior forward Jae’Lyn Withers (14 mpg), senior guard Paxson Wojcik (11 mpg) and sophomore forward Jalen Washington (9 mpg) all have been regular parts of the UNC rotation. Trimble and Withers have been among the Tar Heels’ top defensive players, and Washington has been very efficient offensively.

Not As Good: Rebounding

While the 20-13 Tar Heels of last season ultimately were disappointing in many ways, they were a strong rebounding team. On the offensive boards, for example, UNC’s opponents secured the rebound only 23 percent of the time; that was the best defensive rebounding performance of any Power Six team.

This season, in the absence of veteran forwards Pete Nance and Leaky Black (2022-23 seniors who helped veteran center Armando Bacot a lot on the boards), Carolina was yielding offensive rebounds about 32 percent of the time before a strong performance in that category against Oklahoma. That number was actually worse than the national average (about 30 percent).

In the Tar Heels’ recent losses to UConn (87-76) and Kentucky (87-83), they were dominated on the boards. They gave up 11 and 10 offensive rebounds to the Huskies and Wildcats, respectively.

Asked after the Kentucky loss whether “Bacot and the Tar Heels” had brought enough physicality against the Wildcats, Davis didn’t dodge the question.

“No, we did not,” Davis said. “That’s why we got outrebounded by 10 (42-32). That’s why they got 18 offensive rebounds. It just is what it is.

“Kentucky was tougher than us in the trenches, and in order to win games like that, you have to win the battle in the paint. Whether it’s rebounding, loose balls or finishing around the basket, you have to win those individual battles. We did not in terms of rebounding, and that’s why we lost the game.”

TBD: Road Warriors?

During their 8-3 start, the Tar Heels did not play a single true road game. They were 5-0 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill and 2-1 in the Bahamas. Most recently, they lost back-to-back contests against Connecticut (New York) and Kentucky (Atlanta) before beating Oklahoma (Charlotte) at neutral sites.

While UNC likely will have plenty of crowd support tonight against Charleston Southern at the Smith Center, the Tar Heels certainly will have their mettle tested when they resume their ACC schedule in early January.

Already 1-0 in conference play because of their 78-70 comeback victory over Florida State at the Smith Center on Dec. 2, the Heels face three consecutive road trips against formidable opponents in likely hostile environments to start the new year: at Pittsburgh (Jan. 2), at Clemson (Jan. 6) and at NC State (Jan. 10).

“We have a lot to improve on and a lot to learn from,” Davis said. “So we’re going to be in this situation again — we were up (against UK) by one with five minutes to go — and we’ll be able to learn from this and grow.

“One of the things that Coach Smith used to tell us all the time as players is, a mistake is good when you recognize it, admit it, learn from it, and grow from it. … I always tell the guys, when things happen to you — whether it’s good or it’s bad — the only thing you have control over is how you react and how you respond.

“We have an opportunity to react and respond moving forward for the rest of the season.”