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After a dominant 104–61 win over Western Carolina, the North Carolina basketball team now has a break for final exams before traveling to Knoxville to face No. 20 Tennessee on Sunday.
At 9–1 entering the break (with all wins by double-digits), this Carolina team, ranked No. 7 in the new Associated Press poll Monday, has certainly exceeded expectations so far.
When preseason projected starter Cam Johnson returns around the new year, the Heels will add yet another sweet-shooting offensive weapon for Atlantic Coast Conference play. But for Roy Williams, that’s all the more reason to emphasize the defensive end of the floor.
Williams challenged senior swingman Theo Pinson in particular in this regard last week.
“If he would buy into it like (former UNC star) Jackie Manuel,” Williams explained in last week’s media availability, “I’d be talking about Theo being the best perimeter defensive player I’ve ever coached.”
Pushing Pinson to embrace a role as a perimeter defensive stopper in addition to offensive facilitator makes sense in light of his difficulties shooting from the perimeter so far this season (2–21 from 3-point range) and the plethora of shooters and offensive weapons that surround him.
That said, Williams clarified that he was not suggesting Pinson has been poor on the defensive end — only that “he could be the best I have ever coached, and he’s not.”
If Pinson does decide to take that leap, it would certainly mean a much more difficult task for Carolina’s ACC opponents.
In any case, despite the hot start, the degree of difficulty is certainly about to increase once conference play begins (for UNC, on Dec. 30 against Wake Forest in Chapel Hill), as ACC teams are currently 113–27 (.807) against nonconference opponents so far this season.
MANLEY’S DEFENSIVE PRESENCE
One player who has been having a sizeable impact on the defensive end is freshman big man Sterling Manley. According to Adrian Atkinson of InsideCarolina.com, UNC has been nearly 20 points better per 100 defensive possessions with Manley on the floor than when he’s on the bench this season.
A big part of Manley’s impact on the defensive end comes from his outstanding defensive rebounding, as he has grabbed 29.9 percent of the available defensive rebounds while on the floor, better than Kennedy Meeks’ team-leading 24.1 percent last season.
The new early football signing period (Dec. 20-22) begins in eight days, and it was an eventful week for the Tar Heels, who received four verbal commitments over the past week.
Columbia (South Carolina) linebacker Kyle Wright led the way on Tuesday, followed by highly-regarded prep passer Cade Fortin (Suwanee, Georgia), 290-pound defensive tackle Jahlil Taylor (Cordele, Georgia), and running back Javonte Williams, fresh off his MVP performance for Wallace-Rose Hill in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-A state championship game in which he rushed for 207 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ win over Reidsville on Saturday.
Fortin, a pro-style passer with excellent accuracy, was previously a Texas A&M commitment but changed his plans to the benefit of the Tar Heels after Jimbo Fisher took over as head coach of the Aggies. Taylor was previously an Appalachian State commitment and chose Carolina over ASU and Louisville.
Williams is a 215-pound power back and should pair well with Carolina’s other RB commit, Devon Lawrence, whose Wake Forest team won the state 4-AA title for a second consecutive year.
Carolina’s top overall remaining target, top-100 offensive lineman William Barnes, will not sign early but did set the date for his all-important official visit to Chapel Hill for Jan. 12. Barnes is thought to favor Florida and UNC, with Florida State running third.
FINAL INJURY TALLY
The final numbers on UNC football’s injury woes in 2017 are staggering: 34 scholarship players missed an estimated 77 starts and 232 games due to injury. According to Phil Steele’s data, the record for starts lost over the past decade is also held by UNC, which lost 89 starts in 2010.