UNC Offense Has No Identity Without Its Suspended Backcourt

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 16th, 2013

North Carolina has the look of a team that is completely unsure of who its offensively. Coming into the year facing uncertainty regarding player suspensions and the role both holdovers and newcomers are going to be asked to play in light of these circumstances, the Tar Heels have struggled mightily in their first two contests of the season. Marcus Paige, a point guard/facilitator by nature, has willed the team to victory twice with his new-found proclivity for seeking his own shot. But it’s very clear, facing a brutal non-conference schedule, that this is a Tar Heel team with a serious identity crisis and in jeopardy of getting off to an extremely poor start to the 2013-14 season.

The Tar Heels are struggling without their perimeter threats (credit: Associated Press)

The Tar Heels are struggling without their perimeter threats (credit: Associated Press)

Having played twice against mediocre but motivated opponents, it’s evident that this team is in trouble. The indefinite suspensions of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald due to separate NCAA compliance issues have left Roy Willaims’ team in flux, both in terms of how to practice and prepare for games as well as the roles that returning and new players alike are being asked to assume. Paige, having played an entire freshman campaign at the point, is now asked to play shooting guard while freshman Nate Britt attempts to orchestrate the offense. He’s had to be North Carolina’s main offensive threat in both of the uneven victories over Oakland and Holy Cross. While Paige’s scoring has escalated (he tallied a career high in points and field goal attempts against Holy Cross, with 23 and 17 respectively) and proved vital in both wins, it’s evident that this team is qutite average without its two absent wing players, and that Paige as the primary offensive weapon is not going to be enough for them to excel over the course of a full season.

The frontcourt for the Tar Heels is very deep, but inconsistent and fairly green. James Michael McAdoo, who should be a proven commodity entering his junior season, still seems to be pressing and unsure of whether to operate away from the basket or inside the paint. Joel James and Brice Johnson still seem to be trying to get used to heavy minutes after up-and-down freshman campaigns, and neither seems to be reliable at both ends of the floor. Freshmen Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are just that: freshmen. While each has displayed flashes of his skill set through two games, neither has been able to parlay that into heavy minutes or production thus far. Both look like first-year players adjusting to college basketball, and neither probably expected to be counted on extensively for production on the offensive end.

Hairston and McDonald’s abilities to shoot from long range are glaringly absent on this team. Other than Paige, there is no one on this roster who appears capable of making opposing teams respect their perimeter game. For all the talk that sophomore swingman J.P. Tokoto had drastically improved his jump shot in the offseason, there’s been little evidence that he can consistently score from the outside.  The absence of these two players has a trickle-down effect as well, as moving Paige to the two-guard slot forces Luke Davis into the primary role of backup point guard behind the freshman Britt. While Davis has been serviceable, he doesn’t scare anyone with his offense and is probably playing more minutes than he should at this level. The backcourt is having enormous difficulty maintaining tempo and getting the team into their trademark fast break sets.

The excuse often tossed around is that North Carolina’s players and coaches aren’t able to practice and prepare due to the uncertainty facing McDonald and Hairston, but these have been fluid situations that have been well-documented since the summer. Both players alternate time with the first- and second-team squads in practice, which means North Carolina has ample time to prepare without either of them for a reasonable amount of time in multiple personnel groupings. Paige knew he’d play heavy minutes at the two, Britt knew he’d be counted on to run the offense at times, and the frontcourt players knew they’d be the focal points early, headed by McAdoo as a hopeful primary scorer.

When a team looks as disjointed offensively as this Tar Heels team does so far, it means there are players who simply weren’t ready to assume their roles as serious contributors this early. There’s a very good chance that this team could be without both Hairston and McDonald for extended periods of time, even for the bulk (if not all) of the year. The Tar Heels have to figure out who they are without these players, not who they are until they get back. Otherwise, it’s a team of mostly complementary players who are all being asked in some form or fashion to contribute in ways they and the coaching staff didn’t anticipate. That doesn’t bode well for a team expected to contend not only in the ACC, but nationally.

Lathan Wells (77 Posts)

A 30-year old unabashed college basketball fan, I currently reside in Richmond, Virginia. I especially enjoy following the ACC and the local teams, VCU and the University of Richmond. I hope to continue my journalistic pursuits in the sports arena full-time in the future, but in the meantime I am really enjoying covering the greatest sport there is for RTC. Follow me on Twitter @prohibitivefav.

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3 responses to “UNC Offense Has No Identity Without Its Suspended Backcourt”

  1. Chris says:

    Thankfully you didn’t watch the first half of Oakland game or you would be writing the exact opposite article. This article will probably prove to be accurate in 2 weeks, but it was one game….

  2. RS says:

    The premise of this article is fair and pretty much accurate, but the analysis leading to that premise is a bit flawed. Particularly with regard to James Michael McAdoo. It’s not that he can’t figure out whether to play close to the basket or face up. The problem is that he’s forced to play minutes at power forward because of the indefinite ineligibility of Hairston and McDonald. So instead of criticizing a player who’s being asked to play out of position, it’s more frutiful to analyze whether or not he can handle playing small forward. Plus, McAdoo has averaged 16 points and 6.5 rebounds in 28.5 minutes in the two games. Those are very solid numbers and pretty much what UNC hopes to get from him every night.

  3. RS says:

    Excuse me, I meant minutes at small forward for McAdoo.

    Also, part of UNC’s issue is that it’s forced to put a lineup on the floor at times with nobody who’s a scorer. They spent 2-3 minutes against Holy Cross with Nate Britt, Luke Davis, Desmond Hubert, Jackson Simmons and Joel James on the court. That lineup has no scorer.

    Plain and simple, Hairston and McDonald are two of UNC’s best four or five scorers. Without them, the Tar Heels will be forced to play at times without Paige, McAdoo and Brice Johnson, the three guys who they can count on to score right now. So until the Hairston and McDonald situations are resolved, this team doesn’t have much offensive punch.

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