Turning the corner… On the wins over Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Georgia Tech

Every Carolina fan watching last Thursday night was thinking the exact same thought around halftime of our game against Virginia Tech: it’s happening again. For the second consecutive game, a team entered its game against the Heels on a ice cold streak of poor outside shooting and poor offense generally, only to torch us from behind the arc on the way to a modest halftime lead.

The mid-season crisis (something the 2009 team faced in an 0-2 ACC start) that we all hoped would be confined to one game was starting to feel like a toilsome trend that would last for a while, since we were merely average on offense and opposing back courts were having their way with us, the latter being one of Carolina’s most unfortunate staples.

Thankfully, the Heels altered the narrative in emphatic fashion with a dominating second half, which they followed up with two consecutive home blowouts against two other ACC opponents. Tonight’s win over Georgia Tech was predictable – the Yellow Jackets are, along with Wake Forest and Boston College, one of the worst ACC teams of recent memory – but the N.C. State win was far from it. While most Carolina fans reasonably hoped that we would send the sort of loud statement provided by a game in which we led by 30, there was significant reason to doubt, given that State was off to a good start in ACC play, we were not, and State is wildly overdue to upset us.

Both wins were of the type we grew accustomed to in 2008 and 2009: overwhelm our opponent to take a commanding lead early and then coast through the second half while surrendering a little more of that lead than fans would prefer. That’s another unfortunate Carolina staple. But this team was lacking in legitimate comparisons to the 2009 title squad, and its a significant relief to finally discover one: this team does have, on occasion, enough offense to bury a team early.

The loss of Dexter Strickland is the latest in a sad streak of season-ending injuries to well-liked Tar Heel role players: Bobby Frasor was followed by Marcus Ginyard, who was followed by Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald. Dexter’s is especially sad because he was truly having his best season as a Tar Heel, and like Ginyard, he misses the season that is his team’s best shot at a title. Strickland had fully embraced his role and was adhering to it closely: he scored a few buckets a game in transition, played backup point guard well, completely refrained from taking bad shots and shut down the opponent’s best perimeter scorer.

But teams with the depth with which Roy has loaded his Carolina squads are more likely than others to find positives in a serious negative event. There are a couple of big ones with this year’s squad. One, as I have long and often repeated, Roy benefits from having his rotation forcibly shortened, though it didn’t help that we lost our backup point guard as a part of this.

But a team needs three wing players. Before McDonald went down, we had five, and we are now down to that three number. Expect to see Bullock and Hairston both snap out of their shooting slumps as increased minutes allows them to find their rhythm. Bullock, in particular, has already benefited from starting rather than coming off the bench, and looks ready to make a Danny Green-esque leap. It is always nice to have a solid sixth man to provide a spark off the bench, but points count the same coming from the bench or the starting lineup. Green made himself significantly more valuable playing starter’s minutes, and Bullock will too.

Which leads into the second big positive to be found here, which is that Bullock makes more sense as the starter than Dexter did, and we are already seeing this play out in Reggie’s two starts. The outside shooting he brings to the offense was needed desperately, both for balance in order to keep defenses honest and simply because we were struggling to consistently score. It is no longer true that we start a back court of two guards who cannot score from outside; we now start a shooting guard who is one of the best outside shooters in the ACC.

And don’t let the media fool you: Bullock is going to replace Strickland’s defense, and maybe even improve upon it. Every year that Roy has coached Carolina, there has been a public perception that we were an offensive-minded team that could not play perimeter defense effectively, except for our one token perimeter defensive stalwart. This player, in the media’s pervasive portrayal of Carolina, was traditionally the one of our five starters who was not offensive-minded himself: Jackie Manuel from 2003-2005, Marcus Ginyard from 2005-2010, and now it was Strickland.

The model doesn’t fit the 2010-2012 squad, which last season became one of the nation’s best defensive teams as a whole, largely with the help of Strickland, who is no doubt an elite defender, but also through the defense of ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson, team defensive MVP Tyler Zeller, and even Harrison Barnes when he decides he wants to defend. Early season defensive metrics from CNNSI’s Luke Winn showed that Reggie Bullock was emerging as one the nation’s most formidable defenders, and there is no reason to expect otherwise: it was an off-season area of focus for him, he is a good athlete, and he is a long 6’7″ guard who will have four inches or more on most of the players he defends in college. His results in two starts have been emphatic statements that he can defend at a high level, and the loss of one player is not about to derail this team’s elite defense – when they collectively decide for it to show up.

When all this is taken together, Reggie is frankly the better player, and he should have been playing more minutes before the injury. Winn published more metrics last week showing that UNC was more efficient on offense and defense with Bullock on the floor than with Strickland.

The polls will not reflect this because it isn’t how the polls work, but objective college basketball journalists are all thinking it: strictly over the last week and a half, Carolina has lived up to its expectation to be the best team in college basketball. Until sustained for a longer period of time, inconsistency should still be assumed as a flaw. But we are starting to look like the Florida State game was actually just a mid-season blip for a very good team.

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