Playing and winning under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden may have been just the eye-opening experience North Carolina needed this season.
The Tar Heels beat their first ranked team with their 89-84 overtime win over Ohio State on Saturday and discovered the blueprint of what they need to consistently do to reach their potential.
“It kind of boosts our confidence to know that we can play with toughness, and execute and do what the coaches ask us to do,” junior guard R.J. Davis said. “I feel like we can really build off this, but you got to understand that we got to do it for the first four minutes of the game and throughout the rest of the first half and second half. It has to be a complete 40 minutes.”
Carolina (8-4) will see if any of those lessons truly resonated as it takes on Michigan (7-3) Wednesday in the inaugural Jumpman Invitational at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte.
The Heels beat the Wolverines 72-51 last season in the Dean E. Smith Center as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. And they are in a similar position as they were a year ago at this time, trying to gain some traction heading into ACC play.
Senior forward Armando Bacot said they have more confidence than they did a year ago at this time that if they execute their game plan, they won’t be beat.
“(Ohio State) that’s a physical team and they got a lot of great players, but I feel like we were supposed to beat them,” Bacot said. “Early on this season, we were the No. 1 team in the country. We got the talent, but day in and day out we’re still trying to work on just bringing everything together.”
Bacot is the key
Bacot is the key to making it all work. During their current three game winning streak, he’s averaged 21 points and 13 rebounds. Prior to the streak, he averaged 16.1 points and 11.1 rebounds. The Heels have made getting him the ball a priority.
In three of their four losses (he did not play in the loss to Virginia Tech), he attempted just nine shots per game and attempted five free throws. The last three games, Bacot averaged 14 shots per game and he got to the free throw line an average of eight times.
Bacot isn’t the only one getting to the line either. Collectively, Carolina ranks 14th in the nation in free throw rate, according to Ken Pomeroy. So while they continue to struggle shooting from 3-point range, the Heels average 30.1 percent overall, it is somewhat made up by their ability to take and make free throws.
The Ohio State win gave UNC coach Hubert Davis confirmation that he needs to use full court pressure more. The Heels scored 27 points off turnovers against the Buckeyes and it was instrumental in their comeback.
Davis said his challenge is balancing how much he uses it to ensure the starters don’t get worn out from playing too much.
“Their ability to get deflections and steals, get turnovers, speed up the game, I thought it was huge,” Davis said. “They’ve been fantastic with it all year, and I really do want to do it more. I think it’s something that they do really well and I’m looking forward to trying to figure out a way to do that more consistently throughout the game.”
R.J. Davis said the main thing for Carolina, regardless of what style of play they use, is to be more consistent. He brought up one other area of concern that compared to this time last season. The Heels don’t always come out aggressively, and when they do, they have trouble sustaining their intensity.
“That’s our main concern right now, we’re up and get too nonchalant and kind of think that we got it,” R.J. Davis said. “We just got to keep building off that lead and keep building our blocks . Keep building our foundation as coach Davis says. So right now we’re in a good spot, but we’re going to continue to improve and keep moving forward.”
Tipoff time + TV channel for Wednesday’s game
The game will start at 7 p.m. on Wednesday and will air on ESPN.
How to stream UNC vs Michigan game online
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If your preferred method of watching games involves streaming, there are options for that, too.
ESPN is available on fuboTV, Hulu + Live TV and YouTubeTV. Or click here to view on the ESPN app.
Game day details: UNC vs Michigan
Teams: UNC Tar Heels vs. Michigan Wolverines
Where: Spectrum Center, Charlotte.
Date: Wednesday, Dec. 21
Time: 7 p.m.
Series history: The Tar Heels lead the series 5-4. The teams last met on Dec. 1, 2021 when the Heels won 72-51 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.