Two losses this early in the men’s basketball season places North Carolina and No. 24 Michigan in a similar space before their game on Wednesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The Tar Heels (4-2) have had to re-examine what they’re trying to do defensively after Brown, Purdue and Tennessee shot better than 50 percent from the field against them. The Heels rank 114 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy.
The Wolverines (4-2) have been defined by their offensive shortcomings. They have only cracked 75 points twice this season and their 3-point shooting is down almost 10 percentage points from last season to 29.1 percent this season. They also have the third highest turnover rate in the Big Ten at 21.5 percent.
That’s why both teams, heading into the 9:15 p.m. tipoff at the Dean E. Smith Center, took the time off for Thanksgiving break to focus on their respective deficiencies.
“I feel like we’ve got back to our foundation principles on talking on defense, being in the right position, communicating, team defense — all the things that we talked about in preseason and just for whatever reason, up in Connecticut, we really struggled with that,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said. “And so I do feel like that we’ve improved, but we’ll find out (Wednesday) night and then on Sunday when we play (at) Georgia Tech.”
Two of the areas Davis emphasized were transition defense and containing the ball. The Heels have allowed three teams to score 40 or more points in the paint this season — including a season-high 54 points by the Volunteers. They had it happen just twice all of last season.
Michigan has two, high-usage post players in its rotation in 7-foot-1 sophomore Hunter Dickinson and 6-foot-11 freshman Moussa Diabate. Dickinson played on the same AAU team as UNC junior forward Armando Bacot and the Heels offered him a scholarship out of DeMatha High School. Davis said he’s been a big fan of Dickinson.
“He’s a guy that can consistently score down low in the paint,” Davis said. “He’s the guy that worked extremely hard to get low position, down low on the blocks and he’s extremely skilled. He’s a fantastic passer and he can shoot the ball from outside.”
The problem for Michigan has sometimes been getting Dickinson the right shots. The Wolverines welcomed three new starters to their lineup and introduced five new players in their top nine players.
Dickinson is second on the team with a 14.8 scoring average behind guard Eli Brooks, who averages 15.7 points per game. That comes after Dickinson led the Wolverines in both scoring and field goal attempts last season.
He said players were still just trying to figure out their roles within the offense.
“It takes time, it’s not gonna be a thing that happens in a week or not even a month,” Dickinson said. “But I think towards the end of the season, when games are more important, I think we’ll become the team that everybody thought we were going to be the beginning of the season.”
With that, Dickinson sounded as if he’d been listening to soundbites from Davis’ press conferences. Davis has repeatedly told his team that he believes they can be a contender for the ACC title and are capable of a Final Four run.
Senior Leaky Black agrees because he believes it’s easier for the Heels to turn up their defense than to turn around a team that is limited in scoring — like the 2019-20 season.
“I like where we’re at because defensively, it’s just a mindset,” Black said. “Once we get that mindset that we’re gonna lock people up, I feel like that will just take care of itself and you’ll start seeing how powerful we really are.”
Carolina has lost its last three appearances in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but could draw strength from its home crowd. The Heels beat the Wolverines 86-71 in their last trip to Chapel Hill for the 2017 Challenge.
Wednesday also marks the first true road game for many of Michigan’s underclassmen. The largest crowd they played in front of last season — with attendance limited due to COVID-19 protocols for indoor arenas — was 8,000 in the Big Ten Tournament held in Lucas Oil Stadium.
“It’s definitely gonna be loud, it’s definitely my first road game experience here at Michigan,” Wolverines’ sophomore forward Terrance Williams II said. “But I feel like we read as a team and we’re ready to go in and try to get this win.”