No. 12 North Carolina used a late first half run to open up a 53-39 lead at the break before cruising to a 103-90 win over No. 4 Gonzaga in the Dean Dome on Saturday evening.
It was a dominant performance from the Tar Heels for 40 minutes, the kind of performance that we have been waiting to see from this group from much of the season. Their transition game was firing all night long, they were able to attack the offensive glass and the shooters on this roster made the shots that they are supposed to make.
Through the first month of the season, North Carolina has put up impressive advanced numbers, but that hasn’t led to the kind of wins you would expect out of a group like this. They lost to Texas on a neutral. They were worked over by Michigan in Ann Arbor. And with Kentucky being the only elite non-conference opponent remaining on their schedule, this was a win that the Tar Heels needed, especially considering this game was in Chapel Hill.
The Zags, on the other hand, were playing with house money here. They already have that win over Duke, and anyone that saw them lose to Tennessee on a three in the final 30 seconds knows that they very easily could have won that game. This is the kind of road loss that can be stomached.
Here are the three things we learned from this game:
1. CAMERON JOHNSON IS WHY NASSIR LITTLE’S MINUTES HAVE BEEN LIMITED
Much has been made this season about why Nassir Little, a top five prospect in the Class of 2018 and a potential top five pick in the NBA draft, hasn’t been playing a ton of minutes despite the fact that he has been productive in the minutes he’s seen.
Some have said he’s yet to truly pick up the defense Roy Williams wants to run. Some have said it’s a shot selection thing, he settles for too many tough jumpers. Some have even ascribed the blame to Williams trying to keep Little on campus for two years, as if giving the ball to Coby White and telling him he can do whatever he wants is a surefire way to avoid losing the point guard to the NBA.
The latter is silly. There probably is some truth to the first two ideas. But mostly, Little has struggled to get playing time because the guys that play his position are really, really good.
We all know about Luke Maye at this point. He was an all-american last season and entered this season on the short list for Preseason National Player of the Year. He’s had a slow start this year, but Williams isn’t going to bench him for that, not when he’s capable of going for 20 points and 16 boards against a top five team while he’s in a slump. Cam Johnson has arguably been better this year. Prior to Saturday’s win, Johnson was averaging 15.7 points and shooting 51.5 percent from the floor and 44.4 percent from three. On Saturday, he had 25 points and went 6-for-8 from three.
Both Maye and Johnson are seniors, too, and since Williams has a proven track record of wanting to play two bigs on the floor together, Little is only going to see limited minutes on the floor at the same time as those two; Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley have to play, too.
And that’s really all it comes down to.
Little hasn’t done anything we don’t expect freshmen to do. He just found himself stuck on a depth chart with two potential all-americans in front of him.
2. MIXTAPE SEVENTH!!!
Seventh Woods came into North Carolina with a ton of hype thanks to a mixtape that was published after his freshman season in high school, but has never lived up to that hype as a Tar Heel.
On Saturday night, we saw the best Woods we’ve seen in Chapel Hill. He finished with a career-high 14 points, including the final eight points of the first half as the Tar Heels pushed the lead out to 14 points.
This is hardly the most important development for the Tar Heels, but it does matter. Woods is UNC’s back-up point guard, and we’ve already seen White miss time with injury. White is also a freshman that can run hot and cold. Having another point guard on your bench that isn’t a total liability is a bit of a security blanket for Roy Williams.
3. GONZAGA’S DEFENSE IS A PROBLEM
For the first time since Jan. 3rd, 2007, Gonzaga gave up more than 100 points in a basketball game. (Ironically enough, the last time they did it came again Virginia.) This was on the heels of the Zags giving up 76 points in 68 possessions again Tennessee, 79 points in 67 possessions against Washington, 90 points against Creighton.
Their defense is a major, major issue. As of today, they rank 62nd in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. That still includes some data from last season, when Gonzaga was a top 20 defense nationally, which means that they might actually be a sub-75 defensive team. That is roughly where Duke was ranked last season when we were so concerned about them on the defensive side of the ball.
That does not usually result in NCAA tournament success. There have been just two teams since 2002 entered the tournament ranked outside the top 40 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and reached the national title game: Butler in 2011, the year they beat No. 11 seed VCU in the Final Four, and Trey Burke’s Michigan team in 2013. North Carolina in 2009 was the worst defensive team to win a title, and they entered the tournament ranked 39th.
The good news?
Both 2009 North Carolina and 2013 Michigan were top two nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, and Gonzaga leads the nation on that end of the floor as of today.
The question, then, is whether or not the Zags can get better defensively, and I do think the answer is yes. We have yet to see Killian Tillie play this season, and I do think his presence will help. The problem is that both of Gonzaga’s starting guards, Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr., are average defenders, while Rui Hachimura, as athletic as he is, is a matchup that can be exploited. Down the stretch of the win over Duke, the Blue Devils looked to isolate whoever Hachimura was guarding.
It is too early to start freaking out about this. Remember, we had this same conversation about Duke last season, and they ended up as a top ten defense after switching to zone. We also had this conversation about Duke in 2015, the year they won the title.
But this is something we will need to track all season long.