Carolina men’s basketball excels in ACC play as March approaches

Junior guard Joel Berry II led the Heels with tenacious defense in the victory over the Florida State Seminoles

By Karlton Tate

As March draws closer and conference play begins to ramp up, the 2016-2017 Carolina men’s basketball team (21-5) looks strong but not perfect at the top of ACC standings.  

Offensively, the Tar Heels are seemingly unbeatable when juniors Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II knock down three-point shots. Last season, Jackson’s inability to consistently hit shots from behind the arc was well documented as the small forward went cold for long stretches of the season, making under 30 percent of his shots from three-point range. This year however, Jackson has asserted himself as the team’s offensive powerhouse, averaging nearly 20 points per game and making almost 40 percent of his shots from behind the arc. In an interview following his trip to the NBA Combine last June, the junior revealed that he was advised by scouts to develop his “aggressiveness, ability to draw contact in the lane, and three point shooting,” all of which have vastly improved for the 6’8” star.

As the Heels’ three ACC losses demonstrate, all of which were played away from the Dean Dome and against teams who favor a zone defense, there is plenty of work to be done before the team is ready for postseason play. Historically, zone defenses have given head coach Roy Williams’ teams some difficulty, since the hall of fame coach favors an offense that emphasizes post play over outside shooting. However, in their 91-72 rout of Virginia Tech, Carolina’s guards quickly dismantled Virginia Tech’s zone defense with the three-point shot, a feat which would have been unachievable if Jackson had not solidified his shooting prowess. In the loss to Miami, poor outside shooting coupled with atrocious transition defense led to a disappointing defeat following an impressive seven game win streak in ACC play.

Junior guard Joel Berry II led the Heels with tenacious defense in the victory over the Florida State Seminoles
Junior guard Joel Berry II led the Heels with tenacious defense in the victory over the Florida State Seminoles.

Even though Williams’ deep bench allows for a variety of lineups and styles of play, every player on the roster must be healthy for the Heels to play at their full potential. Freshman center Tony Bradley’s absence after a concussion scare and junior guard Theo Pinson’s brief return to the court demonstrated the importance of the two key players. Bradley completes the trifecta in the Heel’s big man rotation, while Pinson is the team’s “energizer bunny,” providing a crucial spark off the bench when he can play.

If this team wishes to have an extended stay in the NCAA tournament in March, this squad has their work cut out for them on the defensive end of the court. Tenacious defense by the Heels has allowed for signature victories over teams like Florida State, while lackadaisical defense has characterized nearly every loss of the season thus far. Lapses in defensive intensity by the Heels have allowed teams like Notre Dame to claw their way back into games after their fate should have been sealed, and unless the team can improve its defensive consistency, another trip to the Final Four seems unlikely.

For the final stretch of conference play, the Heels must continue to rack up wins despite their tough schedule to maintain dominance of the ACC. The Heels will face Duke, Louisville, and Virginia (twice) in four of their last five games, which will test the team’s toughness in their pursuit of redemption in a national championship game.

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