After nearly a month away from the Smith Center, North Carolina finally returns home on Monday night for its final nonconference game of the season, where it will meet a Yale program that played in the NCAA Tournament last season and looks primed to return in March.
Here’s what to watch for as the Tar Heels (7-5) and Bulldogs (10-3) tip off (7 p.m, ACC Network) in the final game of the decade for both teams:
Carolina split its games out west vs. Gonzaga and UCLA, but for the first time all season, the Tar Heels showed tangible progress in back-to-back games.
There were certainly negatives in both games — the issues right after halftime and defense — but the positives far outweighed them, as Jeremiah Francis and Anthony Harris emerged as solid options in the backcourt while Garrison Brooks continued his steady play and Armando Bacot broke out of a slump.
The loss of Cole Anthony hit Carolina at an especially tough time, amid exams and travel, meaning there wasn’t much time to focus on itself.
It’s been nine days since the victory over the Bruins, and while much of that time was spent at home for the holidays, the Tar Heels have had some time back in Chapel Hill to focus on practice without having to deal with school.
The Bulldogs are good enough to win in Chapel Hill and they certainly won’t be intimidated by going into an ACC arena, proving that on Dec. 22 with a 54-45 victory at Clemson. Already this season, Yale has a win over a good Vermont team (65-52) and narrow losses vs. Penn State (58-56) and Oklahoma State (64-57).
This is an experienced team that knows its identity and does an excellent job of getting opponents to play at a deliberate pace, turning games into defensive street-fights.
The difference between the Bulldogs and many hopeful mid-majors, though, is they have the talented big men to compete with major-conference opponents thanks to the 6-10 Paul Atkinson (17.2 points, 7.2 rebounds) and 6-9 Jordan Bruner (11.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.3 blocks).
Look for Yale to try to negate Carolina’s biggest advantage by rarely sending offensive rebounders to the boards while making defensive rebounding a strong emphasis.
The West Coast trip was Carolina’s second best two-game shooting performance of the season, with the Tar Heels hitting 43.9 percent from the field — a stretch only eclipsed by hitting 44 percent against overmatched Elon and Gardner-Webb teams that didn’t have the size to compete inside.
Not only was overall shooting percentage better but going 13 of 37 from 3-point range was the second-best two-game run of shooting from beyond the arc since making 18 of 45 against Notre Dame and UNC Wilmington.
Sure, Carolina has missed a ton of open shots this season, but overall, it got much better shots against Gonzaga and UCLA — something players had routinely pointed to as an issue during the losing streak.
Can the Tar Heels get those same looks against a team that hangs its hat on making sure opponents don’t?
One big reason the Tar Heels have gotten better shots is the emergence of Francis who has quickly gotten up to speed as a floor general, averaging 11.5 points and 3.5 assists in 25.5 minutes over the two-game stretch.
His overall shooting wasn’t spectacular, hitting 5 of 17 from the field, but with hitting 3 of 5 from 3-point range, Francis helps add a dimension that’s been missing from the offense. He’s also shown the ability to get into the heart of a defense and attack the rim, as he did in generating 10 free throw attempts vs. UCAL, where he hit nine.
Francis hasn’t posted gaudy assist numbers for himself, but with him on the floor, the offense functions better as a whole, with a 26.1 percent assist rate — best on the team.
On top of his production, his story is phenomenal, going from two devastating knee injuries to making his collegiate debut on Dec. 8 to suddenly becoming a major reason for optimism.
Who’s In, Who’s Out?
Anthony is still about two weeks away from a possible return, based on the most optimistic timeline for his return from an arthroscopic knee procedure. Could be later, or based on what we saw with Armando Bacot earlier this season, it could be much earlier.
Either way, time is running out for a few guys to hang onto their minutes with ACC play approaching.
Against UCLA, both Andrew Platek (4) and Christian Keeling (8) played season-low minutes, while Justin Pierce tied his fewest of the season with 10.
It hasn’t been a memorable December for Platek (3.0 points, 1.0 rebounds), Keeling (4.8 points, 3.2 rebounds) or Pierce (3.4 points, 3.0 rebounds), but there’s still an opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation moving forward. Roy Williams will play 10 guys if he can, and he’d certainly love to have the depth that any of these guys should be able to provide.