North Carolina still has one more non-league game. It'll be Wednesday against Monmouth inside the Dean Smith Center. But, for the most part, the non-ACC portion of UNC's schedule is complete.
How have Roy Williams' 11-2 Tar Heels handled things?
Let's grade them!
The Tar Heels aren't as good offensively as they were last season when they led the nation in offensive efficiency and advanced to the title game of the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to Villanova. But they're still really good. They have an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 119.0 -- compared to last season's 123.3 -- that ranks fourth nationally. So they remain one of the sport's best offensive teams. And they're doing this while playing faster -- and without Brice Johnson, who was a consensus First Team All-American last season. All in all, impressive stuff. UNC is on pace to finish with a top-15 offense for the third straight year.
North Carolina has mostly been good on the defensive end -- evidence being its adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 91.1, which ranks ninth nationally. But I can't give the Tar Heels an 'A' because they've allowed the only three ranked teams they've played -- Kentucky, Wisconsin and Indiana -- to shoot a combined 47.5 percent against them. UNC went 1-2 in those games -- the most recent of which was a 103-100 loss to Kentucky in which the Wildcats shot 54.1 percent. So that'll have to get corrected for the Tar Heels to win the ACC because they're going to play a lot of ranked opponents -- Duke, Virginia, Louisville, etc., -- over the next two-plus months.
UNC could, and probably should, be a better defensive-rebounding team considering the Tar Heels rank 62nd in defensive-rebounding percentage. Either way, per usual, they're terrific on the offensive boards. The fact that their effective field-goal percentage is just 53.7 isn't a huge deal because they grab 41.5 percent of their own missed shots, which ranks second nationally. Individually, freshman Tony Bradley and senior Kennedy Meeks rank first and 10th in offensive-rebounding percentage, respectively. So this is what the Tar Heels do best: they get second-shots often. And sometimes third and fourth.
All any coach wants, on a basic level, is for his players to noticeably improve over time and as their roles expand. And that's exactly what's happened at UNC. Joel Berry, a junior point guard, is averaging career-highs in points (15.2), assists (4.7) and rebounds (3.9) while shooting a career-high 50.5 percent from the field and a career-high 43.6 percent from 3-point range. Justin Jackson, a junior forward, is averaging career-highs in points (16.7) and rebounds (4.8) while shooting a career-high 37.5 percent from 3-point range and a career-high 78.3 percent from the free-throw line. Kennedy Meeks, a senior forward, is averaging career-highs in points (12.8) and rebounds (9.0). And Isaiah Hicks, a senior forward, is also averaging career-highs in points (12.4) and rebounds (4.9) while shooting a career-high 79.5 percent from the free-throw line. Add it up, and here's the result: UNC's top four scorers are all upperclassmen. And they're all having the best seasons of their college careers.
North Carolina returned six players who averaged at least 15 minutes per game on last season's 33-win team, which always meant freshmen would have a hard time cracking the rotation. So it should surprise nobody that the only first-year player averaging more than 13 minutes a game is McDonald's All-American Tony Bradley, who is averaging 9.1 points and 6.2 rebounds in 16.8 minutes per contest. The 6-foot-11 forward has been better than most expected. He's a valuable piece on a really good team -- and a serious one-and-done candidate.
The Tar Heels were sixth in the preseason AP poll. Now they're ranked eighth. So UNC is about what it was supposed to be, which is to say a top-10 team with a chance to win the ACC and maybe return to the Final Four and secure the program's sixth NCAA Tournament title.
Every bit of that is just as realistic today as it was in the preseason.
It's all still possible.
The only losses on UNC's resume are single-digit losses -- first at No. 16 Indiana, then to No. 6 Kentucky on a neutral court in what is the Game of the Year to date. And the Tar Heels were ahead with fewer than 20 seconds remaining in that one. So they could easily be 12-1, and they would be if not for Malik Monk.
Bottom line, things are going well.
UNC opens league play New Year's Eve at Georgia Tech.