Three Things: Carolina 72, Virginia Tech 60
1. Ever since the crippling injuries of the 2009-10 season, Roy Williams had made a habit of couching his preseason remarks on his upcoming team with one important phrase: “…if we stay healthy.”
Unfortunately, that’s been a rarity over the last few seasons. Last year’s potential national title chase was derailed by Kendall Marshall’s injured wrist courtesy of the Creighton Blue Jays, and this year’s team has already lost nine games to injury, plus three more to a suspension for Leslie McDonald. In all, Carolina hasn’t played a game with its full rotation since January 6 in Charlottesville. Dating back to Jan. 19, 2011, the Tar Heels have played 40 games—but have had regular rotation players (Marshall, John Henson, P.J. Hairston, Dexter Strickland, Marcus Paige and McDonald) miss a combined 51 contests due to injuries.
2. The return of one of those players, McDonald, was supposed to bolster Carolina’s outside shooting, especially with the absence of P.J. Hairston due to concussion. Instead, McDonald shot just 1-for-7 against Virginia Tech…but still played a major role defensively, where he spent a long stretch of the second half guarding the nation’s leading scorer, Erick Green.
McDonald’s shot eventually must come around. Against ranked teams and ACC opponents combined, he’s hitting just 4-of-19 from the field and 1-for-11 from the three-point line. But if he’s going to play well defensively, the Tar Heels head into an important ACC stretch with a crowded rotation. Once Hairston comes back, the Tar Heels will have ten players averaging double-figure minutes, plus the emerging Jackson Simmons, who averages just 7.9 minutes overall but has averaged 14 minutes per game since breaking out in Tallahassee.
Does the Tar Heel rotation eventually have to be trimmed? History would suggest that it’s very unusual to play this many players this deep in the season. But as Williams has said since the beginning of the year, this is a different Carolina team.
3. Entering late January, a stretch of four consecutive Carolina opponents had hit at least 40 percent from the field against the Tar Heels. But three of the last five opponents—all league foes—have failed to crack the 40 percent barrier, and the Tar Heels have gotten some key defensive stops on individual possessions, including the potential game-winner for Virginia Tech on Saturday.
But the next defensive challenge begins this weekend in a tough two-game stretch that includes trips to Miami and Duke: Carolina must figure out a way to defend on the road. The Tar Heels are allowing opponents to shoot 43.7% from the field and 39.7% from the three-point line in true road games this season. That’s partially because they’ve played some good squads away from home—Indiana, NC State and Virginia, most notably—but it’s also a significant change from Carolina’s defensive field goal percentages everywhere other than the road: 38.6% overall and 32.8% from the three-point line.
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