CHAPEL HILL - There was a time not too long ago when things simply weren’t clicking for North Carolina graduate transfer guard Christian Keeling.
Keeling, who averaged at least 17 points a game in his three seasons at Charleston Southern before becoming a Tar Heel, started in UNC’s first four games before being replaced by Brandon Robinson after the senior guard recovered from an ankle sprain.
Keeling wasn’t exactly setting the word alight with his play before Robinson’s return, making the decision easy for Roy Williams which player was going to the bench once Robinson was ready. Keeling’s shots weren’t falling, he didn’t look confident on the court and, as a result, his playing time suffered.
Transitioning to the highest level of college basketball was taking some time for Keeling.
“You’ve got to have a different type of concentration and you’ve got to have competitiveness,” he recently said, about he and fellow graduate transfer Justin Pierce’s adjustment to the ACC. “It’s obviously different from the conferences we came from.”
On the season, Keeling is averaging 5.6 points on 42.4 percent shooting and 2.6 rebounds in 18.2 minutes per game. Those stat lines, however, don’t even begin to tell the whole story.
In his first 21 games as a Tar Heel, Keeling averaged just 4.2 points on 37.7 percent shooting and 0.8 rebounds in 16.1 minutes per game. He also scored four or fewer points in 13 of those 21 contests.
Prior to UNC’s Feb. 3 matchup at Florida State, Keeling’s season had been one to forget. Something changed that night in Tallahassee, though.
In the Tar Heels’ five games since, Keeling’s production and playing time have dramatically increased. He’s averaging 12.4 points on 53.3 percent shooting and 2.8 rebounds in 26.8 minutes per game. He has scored in double-figures in four of those games, including a 14-point performance at FSU, 13 versus Duke, 15 at Wake Forest and 11 in last Saturday night’s loss at home to Virginia.
Furthermore, Keeling has shot 50 percent or better in four of those games, including 71.4 and 66.7 percent the losses to Duke and UVA, respectively.
He even hit three clutch free throws late against the Cavaliers that would have won UNC the game had Tomas Woldentensae not made a last-second 3-pointer, something UNC Coach Roy Williams noted following the defeat.
“I was really pleased with Christian Keeling stepping up and making those three free throws right there,” UNC Coach Roy Williams said. “The toughness for that kid, who hadn’t had it very easily to be honest with you this year.”
Despite his own personal success in recent weeks, including a return to the starting lineup in UNC’s last two games for the first time in two months, Keeling has never once heaped praise upon himself. Instead, he has always put the team first, which shows more about his character than any performance on a basketball court ever could.
“Right now, I don’t even care what I did,” Keeling said after UNC’s 17-point loss at Wake Forest. “I just want to win games.”
Keeling said something similar after the team’s heartbreaking overtime loss to Duke, too.
“I just knew I had to contribute to the team…,” he said. “Anyway, to try and get my team a win. My biggest thing is just having fun. This is my last year, so I just want to have fun.”
Sitting at 10-16 and 3-12 in the ACC, it has been far from a fun year for the Tar Heels. There was a large stretch where it wasn’t fun for Keeling either, but his positive play in the month of February is something everyone surrounding the UNC basketball program should feel positive about heading into the final games of the season.