This North Carolina team is different.
Different isn’t always good and it wasn’t at first for this team, which is unique in style and roster makeup.
But it turns out these Tar Heels, Roy Williams’ 15th team, are different in a good way. They find themselves in a familiar position as the most important part of the college basketball season approaches.
After a choppy start in ACC play, UNC (22-8, 11-6 ACC) can finish second in the league with a road win at Duke on Saturday night.
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The Tar Heels already have one win over the Blue Devils and are, once again, playing their best basketball when it matters most. That doesn’t change with Williams, even if the type of team does.
Williams has gone with a smaller lineup this season, without a traditional big in the middle, and relied on an unconventional playmaker, senior wing Theo Pinson, and more on the 3-point line.
It took a 40-foot shot at the buzzer on Tuesday by Miami to snap UNC’s six-game ACC winning streak. It’s the 12th such streak in Williams’ 15 seasons and the eighth season in a row with one. Duke (nine) and Virginia (six) are the only other ACC teams with more than two streaks of six wins or more.
The unorthodox Heels have proven they could go to Brooklyn for the ACC tournament and come home with a second title in three years.
With wily seniors Joel Berry and Pinson, they are also capable of a third straight trip to the Final Four. In a wide-open college basketball season, with no real powerhouse or true odds-on favorite, anything can happen.
But even Berry had his doubts before the season started. This is a UNC team, after all, that lost two-thirds of its scoring from last year’s national championship outfit and had its frontcourt practically gutted.
“I didn’t think that we had what it took to reach the dreams and goals,” Berry said on the court during his senior speech on Tuesday after the Miami loss. “But we decided to come together as a team. We lost this game tonight but we’ve come a long way as a team.”
They certainly have.
When UNC left Clemson on Jan. 30 after an 82-78 loss, it had a 5-5 ACC record and had lost three straight ACC games for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
Reserve guard Jalek Felton was suspended for a university issue the morning of the Clemson loss, eroding UNC’s backcourt depth. Felton, his attorney announced on Thursday, has left school and decided to transfer.
The Heels haven’t missed Felton, who scored a total of eight points in nine ACC games. They are more taxed at point guard than Williams’ teams normally are but Berry, who leads the team with 18.2 points per game, has carried a heavy load.
But more than anything else, UNC figured out how to maximize its “small ball” lineup after the Clemson loss.
Berry, junior guard Kenny Williams, junior wing Cam Johnson and junior forward Luke Maye are all capable 3-point shooters.
Even Pinson, who has taken on the role as primary playmaker from the nominal power forward spot, is coming on from the 3-point line. He has made as many 3s (five) in the past three games as he did in the first 27.
UNC has attempted more 3s per game (22.4) this season than at any point in Williams’ tenure. Maye (43-93) has more 3-point attempts this season than any forward who has played for Williams.
Williams had little choice but to be different this season. Forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks graduated from last year’s title team. Tony Bradley, the top backup big, left for the NBA after one season.
Maye, who averaged 5.5 points per game last season, was the only forward on the roster with any experience. His scoring average has skyrocketed to 17.9 points per game and he leads the team with 10.2 rebounds per game.
With Johnson injured, Williams had started freshman forward Garrison Brooks, with Maye, in the first 11 games and then for the first five games after Johnson came back.
Johnson, a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh, had missed the opener with a minor neck injury and then the next 10 games after knee surgery.
After an ugly 61-49 loss at Virginia on Jan. 6, Williams decided to depart from his preferred three-guard, two-forward lineup and go with four guards.
What has worked for UNC, which still leads the country in rebounding, has been that Pinson (6-6) and Johnson (6-8) play bigger than their size.
It took the lineup some time to get up to speed, especially with Johnson still trying to learn about his new teammates. After a 99-66 destruction of Boston College in Chapel Hill on Jan. 9, UNC struggled in a one-point win at Notre Dame, edged Clemson by eight at home and then handled lowly Georgia Tech.
A trip to Virginia Tech on Jan. 22 started the three-game losing streak. A rare home loss to N.C. State was next, followed by the Clemson defeat.
Two notable trends changed after the losing streak: UNC took better care of the ball, and was clicking on offense, and it tightened up its defense at the 3-point line.
During the three-game losing streak, UNC turned the ball over 12.6 times per game and averaged 76.7 points in regulation.
During the six-game winning streak, the Heels cut their turnovers down to 9.5 per game and averaged 88 points per game.
“We can go watch the past six games, our offense was just fluid,” Pinson said. “We just moved and played basketball and didn’t worry about anything.”
Pinson, who has averaged 16.2 points and 7 assists over the past five games, has been more assertive. Johnson, who has scored in double figures in six of the seven games since, has found his niche.
Johnson, a grad transfer from Pitt, was expected to offset some of the offense lost when wing Justin Jackson, the ACC player of the year, went pro after his junior season.
Johnson has been a different player from Jackson but has proven to be an effective replacement with 13.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per ACC game.
UNC has been better at defending the 3-point line since the Clemson loss, too. During the three-game losing streak, Virginia Tech-N.C. State-Clemson went a combined 42-90 (46.7 percent) from 3.
In the next six wins, UNC’s opponents went 51-135 (37.7 percent) and no team made more than 10 3s in a game.
“I think everybody can kinda tell, we were a little more locked in on the defensive end (during the winning streak),” said Kenny Williams, the team’s best defender.
UNC still ranks among the worst teams in the country at defending the 3-point line (No. 334 out 351 teams) but it has improved.
Some of the old problems cropped up on Tuesday in the 91-88 loss to Miami. The Hurricanes shot 50 percent from the 3-point line (11-22) and were helped by 13 UNC turnovers.
The loss, on a last-second shot, doesn’t undo the progress the Tar Heels have made since the calendar hit February.
It’s March now and that has been UNC’s time the past two years.
“We’re not done yet,” Berry said.
Now’s the time of the year when we’ll see how different this UNC team really is.