UNC Answers Critics With Statement Win Versus Louisville SundayPosted by Lathan Wells on November 25th, 2013
Coming into the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic over the weekend, North Carolina had generated plenty of concern from a fervent fan base after a less-than-stellar start to the season. Uneven performances against Oakland and Holy Cross were worrisome enough, but then the Tar Heels dropped a home game to Belmont that caused a plummet in the rankings and had pundits predicting a very long year for the storied program. While many blamed the ongoing suspensions of PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald for a startling lack of offensive continuity and inability to put lesser competition away, there were other major questions for the team as it headed into the tournament. Could the team continue to rely so heavily on Marcus Paige, a point guard by nature, as its primary scoring threat playing off the ball? Would the freshmen and sophomores begin to show the promise and consistency expected of them? Had Roy Williams suddenly been exposed as a mediocre in-game coach, unwilling to make adjustments when his system doesn’t run smoothly?
All three questions were answered over the course of the weekend, none more dramatically than when the Tar Heels shocked the world by upsetting defending national champion Louisville in the tournament title game on Sunday. Paige continued his torrid scoring stretch over the weekend, netting a career-high 26 points against Richmond on Saturday in the semifinals and then topping that mark with 32 against the Cardinals. While the converted shooting guard remains the team’s lone outside threat, his noticeable improvement from long range has proven to be a godsend during the absence of the team’s primary perimeter shooters. While holdover James Michael McAdoo has proven inconsistent in this young season, Paige has been Carolina’s go-to guy in all the critical moments and right now he’s producing with that burden on his shoulders.
Given the immediate success of current freshmen like Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Kentucky’s Julius Randle, it’s not out of the question to wonder why the Tar Heels have not landed an immediate star contributor from the high school ranks as well. But while five-star recruit Isaiah Hicks remains largely a non-factor, this weekend showed some of the reasons why current freshmen Kennedy Meeks at center and Nate Britt at point guard were solid if not spectacular signees. Meeks nearly landed a triple-double (13/12/7 assts) in the Louisville game after a stern talk with Williams following an uneven performance versus Richmond, and his prodigious rebounding ability and outlet passing acumen bring a totally new dimension to this team. UNC likes to run but hadn’t been able to do it consistently yet; more minutes for Meeks and his ability to jump-start the fast break could change that. While Britt has shown he’s limited offensively, his five-assist performance against the always-difficult pressure defense of Louisville showed that the big stage didn’t frighten him at all. If Williams continues to need Paige at shooting guard, Britt’s showing against Louisville should instill confidence with the coaching staff that he can run the show.
But perhaps the most impressive youngster of the weekend for the Tar Heels was sophomore Brice Johnson, who produced a double-double against Richmond with 24 points and 12 rebounds before following that up with 13 points and five boards against Louisville. His scoring punch is badly needed on this team, and if Williams can count on him to score consistently around the hoop, the Tar Heels’ offensive profile improves dramatically. Johnson is not a great on-ball defender and he is sometimes preoccupied with statement-making blocks, but his ability to score inside is vital. A frontcourt of Johnson, Meeks, and McAdoo could prove to be very fruitful for this North Carolina team.
Oh, and the disdain about Williams’ coaching abilities after the Belmont loss? Well, his adjustments to use various zone defenses (never one of his favorite moves to make) helped make the defending champs offensively one-dimensional. While Russ Smith and Chris Jones were lethal from outside, they were unable to penetrate the lane in the second half, rendering the Louisville post players invisible. Williams is occasionally taken to task for mixing and matching lineups too far into the season, but this year he almost has no other choice and there’s no doubt that his tactical moves this weekend were a key reason why his team emerged victorious in both affairs. This is a team that could have gone into the tank after last Sunday’s loss to Belmont, but instead it has emerged as a resilient group with two big neutral-site resume-enhancing wins. That’s largely a credit to the coach keeping players focused and ready to play.
The suspensions of Hairston and McDonald are constantly referred to as “fluid” situations with no clear resolution in sight. There’s a possibility that neither player will suit up for the Tar Heels again. But four games into the 2013-14 season, the Hall of Fame Tip-off Classic helped shed light on what this current roster can do if all the players understand their roles and play to their potential. Sunday’s win was just as impressive as last Sunday’s disappointing, but the slate will get even tougher in the coming weeks with road trips to UAB and Michigan State looming in addition to a home contest with Kentucky. After the Tar Heels’ weekend trip to Connecticut, though, there is finally a glimmer of hope that Roy Williams’ roster as currently constructed could still turn into a contender at both the conference and national levels. That couldn’t have been said as recently as a week ago.