Roy Williams made a simple plea to his North Carolina players before they took the floor against Notre Dame on Monday.
“Let’s show them what kind of team we are,” Williams said during his pregame speech, a portion of which was posted on Twitter.
What kind of team is No. 14 UNC?
That was difficult to put a label on after a perfectly uneven (yet even) 5-5 ACC start and a rocky finish to January.
But the Tar Heels (20-7, 9-5 ACC) have found their groove in February and take a four-game winning streak into Saturday’s road matchup with Louisville (18-8, 8-5).
What has changed besides the calendar?
UNC gave up 42 3-pointers in consecutive losses to Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Clemson. Both the Wolfpack and Tigers went 15 of 30 from the 3-point line.
In the four wins since (Pittsburgh, Duke, at N.C. State, Notre Dame), UNC has allowed 36 3-pointers and no more than 10 in a game.
“I think the biggest thing is us not giving up so many 3s,” senior guard Joel Berry said. “It’s hard to play with teams when they’re knocking down 10 to 15 3-pointers per game.
“I think we’ve done a great job of just making sure we get out to the 3-point line and guarding it. I honestly think that’s the reason.”
Consider State outscored UNC 45-12 from the 3-point line in a game that went into overtime in Chapel Hill on Jan. 27 and you realize it only takes one or two stops from the 3-point line to make a difference.
UNC’s opponents during the four-game winning streak have shot 37.9 percent from the 3-point line, which is still high, but better than the 46.7 percent opponents shot during the three-game losing streak.
The Tar Heels rank No. 325, out of 351 teams, in 3-point field-goal defense. That’s a stat that irks Williams.
“I’m still trying to convince my team we’ve got to be able to guard people a little bit better,” Williams said. “They are sort of making me think that they think they can outscore people. I know that’s not true when you want to win the bigger games.”
UNC finished the 82-78 loss at Clemson on Jan. 30 with only two players scoring in double figures. The three-game losing streak – the first since the 2013-14 season – started the same way with only two players scoring in double figures in an 80-69 loss at Virginia Tech on Jan. 22.
Four UNC players scored at least 13 points in Monday’s win over Notre Dame and during the winning streak, at least four players have scored in double figures in each game.
UNC is 8-0 in ACC play when it has at least that many players score in double figures and only 1-5 when it doesn’t.
Berry (17.5 points per game) and Luke Maye (18.3 ppg) have been the constants. The mileage has varied for Kenny Williams, Theo Pinson and Cam Johnson.
The main reason UNC has had more scoring balance is Johnson is starting to settle into his role and his teammates are starting to figure out how to play with Johnson in the lineup.
“You bring a new guy in, especially in the middle of the season, it’s little bit hard to throw somebody in and hit your stride, hit your groove,” junior guard Kenny Williams said.
Johnson, a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh, missed the first 11 games with injuries. UNC went 10-1 without Johnson and had figured out how to play without him.
When Johnson came back, UNC went 3-3 in his first six games in the lineup and Johnson averaged 10.8 points per game.
“I just honestly think it’s our chemistry coming together,” Berry said. “Cam came back in the middle of the season and we really didn’t get a chance to gel with him.
A little health has helped Johnson, too. He missed the first game with a minor neck injury and then 10 games after knee surgery. He was dealing with flu-like symptoms for a stretch of January, including the losses to Virginia Tech and N.C. State.
The five games since he has recovered from the flu, Johnson has averaged 18.0 points per game and UNC is 4-1 in those games.
The good news for UNC is the winning streak has done more good than the losing streak did harm. The Heels enter their last four ACC games a half-game behind Duke (9-4) and Clemson (9-4) for second-place in the ACC.
They are also jockeying with the Blue Devils and Tigers for NCAA tournament position and the chance to start the postseason in Charlotte for the first and second rounds.
If they continue to play like they have in the past four games, they will leave no doubt about “what kind of team” they are.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
No. 14 UNC at Louisville
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, Ky.
TV/radio: ESPN, 106.1-WTKK
Records: UNC (20-7, 9-5 ACC), Louisville (18-8, 8-5 ACC)