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Davis and Wright close in ACC and Big East

As the season grinds through February, two of my “Group of 7 Coaches” have stayed close in their conference races as Jim Wright and Villanova improved to 19-6 overall and 12-3 in the Big East, and Hubert Davis has his North Carolina team at 18-7 and 10-4 in the ACC. While most of the rest of my watchlist had promising starts, the season has not gone as well in conference play for all as the remaining teams finished the week with at least one loss.

CoachSchoolOverallConference
Hubert DavisNorth Carolina18-710-4
King RiceMonmouth16-98-6
Chris BeardTexas18-77-5
Wes MillerCincinnati16-86-5
Shaka SmartMarquette16-98-6
Jay WrightVillanova19-612-3
Jerry StackhouseVanderbilt13-115-7
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UNC in chase – grades well

Now clearly in chase mode, UNC got off to its best start of the season against Florida State. Freshman Dontrez Styles was first off of the bench and had his most productive game as a Tar Heel with 8 points and four rebounds in 16 minutes of play. Styles gave multiple teases of the explosive jumping ability and athleticism that some that got to see him play in high school have been hoping to see in Chapel Hill. Kerwin Walton appears to be settling in and had another game of shooting without hesitation and even put the ball on the floor and got to the line. Walton continued his perfect shooting from the free throw line, score 9 points on 3-6 shooting and 2-4 from the three. Trusting the bench against FSU was a confidence building step in the right direction as bench play will be even more important and necessary as the season moves through the last month. Caleb Love played a good game overall with his best single game 3-point shooting but has to learn to stop the dribble drive and stop the bone-headed plays like the missed windmill dunk attempt on an uncontested fastbreak in the second half. Fortunately, Love bounced back on the next play by swishing a 3-pointer! Puff Johnson gets recognition for his play with five points on 2-4 shooting in 11 minutes of play and stepped in to draw a charge.

At 3:55 in the first half, UNC was shooting 74% from the floor, including 70% from the three. Everyone was fresh, active and aggressive in first half. Plus, we finally got to see the Carolina fast break! The team seemed to play with an urgency that’s been missing for much of the season. There was poor execution on the last play before halftime, but the early second half mostly delivered on execution, ball movement, and decision making.

RJ Davis is definitely the steadying presence and initiated much of the offense against FSU, but the rebound and push from Leaky Black and Styles helped keep the pace up throughout the game. With Armando Bacot giving his usual double-double, Brady Manek solid on both ends of the floor, and the players off the bench getting high grades, all deserve “Dean’s List” recognition with A’s today.

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Duke loss no time to panic

I prefer not to point out again the inconsistencies of comments relating to college basketball and the over-glorification of some teams and leagues. But why not? To have Duke go into the Smith Center and take down North Carolina with relative ease, only to struggle at home and lose two days later to a Virginia team that made just two 3-pointers and five free throws while getting out-rebounded and allowing Duke 22 chances at the line, points to the constant overreaction and showering teams with praise and glory for wins or doom and gloom for losses. Should Duke followers and media elites who poured it on after the win at UNC now speak up about Duke’s inconsistent play? Big win, head-scratching loss. Four times! All close losses when they were unable to recognize the game situation and seal the win. There’s no need to panic! Each game is simply a snapshot of that moment, not a near predictor of what’s next. Win streaks and losing several games in a row are really just strings of independent occurrences. Unless it happens to be the last game of the year, there’s no need to freak out. Don’t get me wrong, I believe there is some good in statistics and the growing attention to analytics, but I would not bet everything purely on what happened in the last game or in each loss. Throw in all of the talk about Quad 1 wins and losses and which league is stronger, and we have another piece of crap tool to evaluate teams for post season invitations. A Quad 1 game when it was played could be a Quad 2 next week. Team evaluations and the opinions of media talking heads sway too far in each direction from game to game. Virginia forgot about the Carolina-Duke game before Duke stopped feeling good about their “great” performance on Saturday, allowing the Cavaliers to take the home court as Duke did in Chapel Hill. If only the Blue Devils had been hosting in the Smith Center.

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How UNC got it wrong and took me down with them

Thinking North Carolina would play better defense, outrebound Duke, shoot the ball well, and make good decisions at home on Saturday seemed like a reasonable expectation. Being wrong in almost every category was not expected. Poor shooting, bad defensive assignments to start the game, and the mental fog that seemed to set in on some players once Duke scored first helped steer UNC back to unfocused play and poor decision making. The Blue Devils looked so dominant during the game that we wouldn’t think that both teams scored on the same number of 3-pointers, both scored 10 points on free throws, both had 59 shots from the field, and that the Tar Heels only had 8 turnovers. Leaky Black and Brady Manek lead UNC with Black holding Duke’s top target Paolo Banchero in check when on the guard, and Manek keeping the team close with his scoring outside and inside. But while Banchero was being held in check, no one had the answer for AJ Griffin as he scorched UNC for 27 points; including the first 10 points of the second half before UNC could score. Duke played as if the Smith Center was their home court, while UNC appeared to be the team playing in a hostile arena. With at least one top recruit in the building that both teams are trying to sign, his choice may tell if this game played any part in his final decision.

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’22 Duke-UNC strengths

In 2009 after North Carolina’s game at Duke, Glenn Petty wrote UNC’s glaring weakness on defense is their inability to stop dribble penetration. The same could be said for the current team, which also struggles with when to close out on the perimeter. As in the 2009 game, UNC may need to put together several strong runs to hold off Duke and stay undefeated at home. But be clear that UNC is not the only team that has to be prepared. Though very talented, Duke must also be prepared to stay in the game and take the win. Carolina will not back down easily on Saturday!

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UNC becoming tough draw

The games within the game can be better than the game. UNC-Louisville felt that way tonight. The 3-point game was entertaining, but the action under the basket did not disappoint. Though defense on both sides was good, offensive was even better as both teams scored at a higher percentage from distance than overall. Almost all game stats were fairly even, with UNC slightly ahead on most measures. This was the type of action that fans of both teams should have enjoyed watching. All UNC starters scored in double figures and made all of the team’s points. Four Louisville players scored in double-digits and over half of their points came from the bench. Give Louisville a salute for playing through all of the noise that’s been around their program in recent weeks but give UNC credit for putting in a full game. Brady Manek and RJ Davis are quietly working their way onto the all-conference teams, while Leaky Black continues to improve offensively and leads on defense. If Armando Bacot continues his double-double tear, and Caleb Love can make better decisions throughout the game, UNC will be a tough draw for the rest of the season.

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NCSU…the last 9 games

NC State gave up 100 points in a 4-overtime win over Nebraska in December but have not given up as many points in a loss this year as they did in the 100-80 loss to UNC on Saturday. With the next three games at home, followed by road games at Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech before finishing up the home schedule against Boston College and a rematch with UNC; NC State has a legitimate chance to close the season with six wins or better. The Wolfpack will not match up well against Wake Forest, UNC and Florida St, but should get wins against Pittsburgh, BC, and Georgia Tech with better defense and more balance on offense. Games against Syracuse and Notre Dame are toss ups at home that should give NC State a slight edge. Closing the season at 17-14 should improve ACC tournament seeding and give some hope for post-season play with a good showing in Greensboro.

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Banners, milestones, rivalry, grands and biscuits

You know it’s going to be a good day when your game buddy, aka granddaughter, chooses Chick-fila-A before the game. Even snow in the early morning and a cold windy day couldn’t change the mood inside as retired UNC coach Roy Williams was formally recognized with a banner in the rafters at the Smith Center, Armando Bacot reached the 1,000-points career milestone, Michael Jordan and most of the 1982 National Championship team were on hand, and the Tar Heels playing their most complete half of the year on the way to beating rival NC State. Active defense, great ball movement, good shot selection. Perhaps this is the Carolina that most expected to see. Add this game’s crowd engagement, and you can again say “This is Carolina basketball!” Scoring 100 points and limiting your rival’s best player to one made basket makes for a great day, but one NC State fan making his way through the crowd after the game said it all as he commented about his disappointment with the game: “Dang… we got y’all biscuits!”

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Grayson Allen causes injury

Grayson Allen continues to make headlines for dirty play after little punishment following tripping incidents while at Duke, and accusations of dirty play since coming to the NBA. ESPN reported that Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso suffered a fractured right wrist and will need surgery after a fall following a flagrant foul from Allen during the Milwaukee-Chicago game on Friday. It’s time for the league office to put an end to this type of dangerous play. If Isaiah Stewart was suspended for two games for retaliating after Lebron James elbowed him, certainly Allen should at least get the same light one-game suspension that James received.