Five Things to Watch as UNC Meets Gardner-Webb

Brant Wilkerson-New

After a week off, North Carolina returns to the Smith Center on Friday night to take on Gardner-Webb (9 p.m., ACC Network) with Armando Bacot back in the lineup.

After an NCAA Tournament appearance last season, the Runnin’ Bulldogs (0-2) are in a similar situation as the Tar Heels (2-0), having lost several key players and working others into new roles.

Here’s what to watch for:

Pressure, Please

Despite ranking ninth nationally in defensive efficiency per KenPom.com, the Tar Heels have been among the worst in the nation at forcing turnovers (344) and generating steals (338).

Not only is that affecting Carolina’s defense, but it’s limiting its ability to generate good opportunities on the fast-break, as we dove further into here today. 

Luckily for the Tar Heels, GWU is among the worst in the nation at giving the ball up, turning the ball over on 27.1 percent of its possessions, ranking 342 nationally.

That was a major point of emphasis this week.

“We’re obviously happy with the results, but we’ve got to get a lot better,” forward Justin Pierce said. “This week was a great opportunity for us to really tighten up on the defensive end; we’ve been really working a lot on our communication.”

Keeling Coming

After Pierce, a fellow graduate transfer got on track at UNC Wilmington, is this Christian Keeling’s turn?

Despite a few flashes of his offensive ability, Keeling has largely struggled over his first two games as a Tar Heel, hitting 4 of 13 field goal attempts with 4 rebounds, 6 turnovers and 9 points.

Roy Williams talked about the difference of playing in the ACC vs. the Big South and CAA.

“Nothing against their programs, but this is a different level and most of the time the competition you’re going to face every night is better than you’ve ever faced,” he said. “I think the consistency of their effort and consistency of their efficiency is something that we’ve been trying to make sure of.”

Keeling certainly showed he can score efficiently in the exhibition victory over Winston-Salem State, hitting 5 of 7 attempts on his way to 14 points.

“He’s a big-time player, he’s a big-time scorer” Pierce said. “We’ve seen what he can do in practice, I’ve seen what he can do at Charleston Southern. He’s going to be just fine and I think it’s important not to overreact just two games into the season.”

Brooks Best Ball

With Armando Bacot exiting with an injury on Friday, Garrison Brooks took over as Carolina’s only post threat, finishing with 18 points and 12 rebounds for his first career double-double all while maintaining his standard as the Tar Heels’ defensive player of the game.

After a 10-point performance in the season opener, Brooks has posted double-figure scoring efforts for the third time in his career.

Much was made of his offensive development over the offseason and Williams has talked about the need for more from Brooks in every regard.

So far, he’s been up to the challenge, and on Friday, he could take another step forward with a third straight double-figure scoring night — something he’s never accomplished at Carolina.

On Guard

Not long after Evansville knocked off No. 1 Kentucky on Tuesday night, the Carolina basketball group text lit up.

“As that game ended someone sent out a text in our group chat and said, ‘We’ve got to tighten up and we’ve got to bring it every night because you don’t want that to be us,’” Pierce said.

Williams was following along with the score and hoped his players would be too, as it serves as a great lesson this time of year when power programs meet one double-digit underdog after another.

For a Carolina team that is still working to find consistency, it can’t waste an opportunity to get closer to playing a complete game — something it definitely hasn’t done yet.

Pierce has a unique perspective and certainly won’t allow his teammates to take the Runnin’ Bulldogs lightly.

“We’re all Division I athletes and we’re all very capable,” he said. “I know that being from a mid-major, so we’re not going to take them lightly.

“You’re going to get everyone’s best shot playing at North Carolina, and I know that because I was at a mid-major once getting fired up for those high-major games.”

At the Stripe

Free throws have been anything but for the Tar Heels this season, having made just 26 of 47 attempts.

Things were particularly bad in Wilmington, as Carolina hit 16 of 30 on the night as Anthony was 2/7 and Pierce missed all four of his attempts.

On Friday, every Tar Heel will get up a minimum of 200 free throws before shootaround, although there’s already been plenty of work to make corrections this week.

“I’ve gotten up a healthy amount more than that and Cole has been in there a lot,” Pierce said. “We’ve got a lot of hard-workers on this team and I think that will correct itself.”

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