North Carolina: ACC Outlook
Record to date: 13-2
Strength so far: A much-improved offense. Carolina’s defense was excellent last year, and it is again this year. But the biggest surprise has been how much better the Tar Heels are offensively. Last year per Ken Pomeroy, Carolina’s offense was 38th and the defense was 6th. That’s what likely held them back from reaching the Final Four in the loss to Kentucky: prolonged scoring droughts. This year, Carolina is 12th defensively and 6th offensively.
Needs improvement: Forcing turnovers. Carolina is seventh in the ACC in loss of ball percentage forced (16.1%). Only three Carolina opponents have had a loss of ball percentage of 20% or higher this year and only six have been over 15%. Carolina is going to be facing ACC teams that want to slow the game down, and one way to avoid that is by forcing turnovers. Wisconsin dictated tempo because it committed just four turnovers in 72 possessions (5.6%). Carolina has still managed to score points off turnovers (18.0 per game on 14.0 turnovers forced), but in two losses, they’ve averaged just 4.0 steals.
Most important player: Harrison Barnes. A lot of people have focused on his early-season “struggles”, and with what he was able to do to close out last season, that’s understandable. He is still averaging 17.1 points on 49% shooting (49% from three), adding 4.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists and a steal. Just observationally, he’s had some games where he’s seemed off, and Carolina has suffered because of it: in two losses, he has shot 7-of-22 (31.8%) from two, 4-of-6 from three and averaged 14.5 points. In all other games, he has shot 67-of-129 from two (52%). He’s averaging 21.3 points on 59% shooting in the last three games to go with 6.3 boards, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals in just 22.3 minutes.
Reason for optimism: Three-point shooting. Carolina was missing Reggie Bullock for most of last season and he was hobbled when he came back. Leslie McDonald was their best three-point shooting threat at 38.1%; he and Bullock combined to shoot 80-of-232 (34.5%). No one else on Carolina could get much going, though Barnes got better from three later. Carolina’s bench three-point shooters this year, a healthy Bullock and freshman P.J. Hairston, are 44-of-134 (39.5%).
Reason for pessimism: Free-throw shooting. The Tar Heels have shot 64% from the foul line, 283rd in the nation and worst in the league. For a team that goes to the line as much as it does, they need to start making a higher percentage. It could cost them in a close ACC game this year.
Surprising stat: Carolina’s non-conference schedule has been bashed lately, likely because of a spate of cupcakes at the end of it. But to date, Carolina has beaten the No. 9, 2, 27 and 39 teams (per Ken Pom), losing only at No. 24 UNLV and No. 3 Kentucky. Even if Carolina wins all its ACC games, it will have beaten the same number of top-40 teams (Duke, FSU, Virginia Tech and Virginia) total.
Most likely wins (11): BC (1/7), Miami (1/10), @Va. Tech (1/19), NCST (1/26), Ga. Tech (1/29), @Wake (1/31), @Maryland (2/4), Duke (2/8), UVA (2/11), Clemson (2/18), Maryland (2/29)
Most likely losses (1): @Duke (3/3)*
Toss-ups (4): @FSU (1/14), @Miami (2/15), @NCST (2/21), @UVA (2/25)
*This is listed as a “toss-up” for Duke, but Carolina’s not going undefeated in the league. Even Ken Pomeroy gives Carolina just a 42% chance to win.
Best-case scenario: 15-1.
Worst-case scenario: 13-3.