Leonard Hamilton knows what to expect from North Carolina. He also knows Florida State will face a frustrated UNC team that is coming off a surprising 83-70 loss at home to Marquette — which was just 10-12 going into that game.
“An angry Tar Heel is not good for anybody,” Hamilton said. “With the exception of the Marquette game, they have made tremendous progress.”
Since FSU knocked off UNC 82-75 in Tallahassee on Jan. 16, the Tar Heels are 6-3. They have shown modest improvement, picking up a narrow win over Duke and drilling Louisville by 45 points prior to the Marquette loss. The Tar Heels have been inconsistent in large part due to using seven freshmen among its 11-man rotation, making them among the youngest teams in Division I.
UNC is led by 6-foot-10 sophomore Armando Bacot, who has 11.8 points and 7.7 rebounds. Freshman guard Caleb Love and senior forward Garrison Brooks each average 10.4 points.
Here are some storylines on FSU (14-3, 10-2 ACC) and UNC (14-8, 8-5) ahead of the game on Saturday at 4 p.m. (ESPN):
M.J. Walker, Malik Osborne and Tanor Ngom are all deadling with injuries. “Probably be a game-time decision before we know whether or not they’re going to play,” Hamilton said. “So our preparation is going to be a little different. We have to see how that goes.” Osborne turned his ankle in the first half at Miami. Hamilton said after the Miami game that Walker has battled tendinitis and ankle issues. Ngom has back soreness.
Hamilton was asked about a frequently used phrase of his, which is “the cake is in the oven” as he speaks to the progress of how his team develops over the course of a season. “Right now, I’m trying to figure out, ‘Do I have all the ingredients to put in the cake?’ Right now, I might be missing a little butter. I might be missing a little sugar.”
Don’t forget leadership
RaiQuan Gray’s scoring and rebounding have been in the spotlight for obvious reasons. He has scored in double figures in nine straight games — the first being a 19-point outing in FSU’s win over UNC on Jan. 16. He’s had three double-doubles, with two coming against Miami and one in the overtime win over Wake Forest.
An intangible like leadership that Gray provides isn’t lost on Hamilton, though.
“He’s getting recognition because he’s scoring a lot of points and he’s getting rebounds, but the value that he brings to us is far greater than just scoring points and rebounds,” Hamilton said. “He’s giving us great leadership, his wisdom that he’s gained over the years from just playing and listening and watching, he’s one of the more informative players. … He’s a very valuable piece to us. He gives us a little bit of what Trent Forrest gave us last year from a leadership standpoint, which makes him extremely valuable, especially here down the stretch.”
With Walker out due to injury, players like Sardaar Calhoun and Nathanael Jack saw more playing time at Miami. Jack played 15 minutes at Miami, making three 3-pointers.
“One of the more regretful things that I’ve had to deal with this year in terms of rotating and utilizing our talents is my inability to get him on the floor more,” Hamilton said. “For the most part, I think we have a pretty good flow, a pretty good rotation. It’s easier for me to maybe rotate 10 guys, sometimes it’s a little challenging unless someone is injured or in foul trouble. It’s a little more challenging. And his attitude has just been unbelievable. He’s one of my all-time favorite guys that I’ve had to coach only because he’s been patient. He’s been a great, phenomenal teammate. He’s a strong, religious kid who blesses our foods at every meal.”
Listen to Calhoun speak and it’s evident he doesn’t lack confidence in his game. He showed it at Miami with 16 points, three assists, three rebounds and two steals in 24 minutes. Hamilton also praised Calhoun for his positive attitude and has seen a more decisive and assertive shooter as the season has progressed.
“Like most junior college guys, because they have to have a certain level of success doing it a certain way at the junior college level, sometimes it’s a little bit more of an adjustment for them when they come into a program like ours,” Hamilton said. “Early on in the year, I thought that he was a little indecisive when he was on the floor. Now he’s really sure of himself. He’s making great decisions. He’s not nearly as hesitant as he was earlier in the year.”
Williams seeking 900th win
UNC coach Roy Williams is seeking his 900th win in 33 seasons as a head coach. Williams is 899-260 all time. He has won three national titles at UNC, including in 2016-17, but the Tar Heels have often underwhelmed with a second-round NCAA Tournament exit the following year, a Sweet 16 appearance and then a 14-19 season in 2019-20.