Will the Real North Carolina Please Stand Up? Maybe It Already HasPosted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 19th, 2013
Will the real North Carolina basketball team please stand up? Or maybe they already have. Maybe this Tar Heels squad is going to have major ups and downs all year. Has a high profile team ever had a stranger first 10 games than the 2013-14 Tar Heels? Consider that North Carolina swept all three games with this preseason’s consensus top three teams – Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville, but now has also lost to three unranked teams, and twice at home. After last night’s 86-83 loss to Texas, the Heels have managed to offset all three huge wins with three perplexing losses. Imagine what fun the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee is going to have trying to evaluate this team’s resume.
While Roy Williams‘ team is difficult to understand, let’s at least try to figure out what causes such huge swings in performance by looking at all six pivotal games. The first thing that stands out is how important the first half has been for this team. In all six games the Tar Heels outscored their opponents in the second half — by an average of eight points in the three big wins; and by five in the three bad losses. However, North Carolina has trailed at the half in the three losses by an average of 10 points. In the three wins, they were tied at the half with Louisville and Michigan State and led Kentucky by three. So it’s safe to say that a good start is crucial to this Tar Heels team.
It’s also clear that this team does not have the individual offensive firepower to compete at a high level without also bringing great energy. The Heels were the clear aggressors in the win over Louisville, attacking the Cardinals repeatedly in transition on the way to 93 points. In the opening of the Michigan State game, North Carolina dominated the top-ranked Spartans on the glass, setting the tone early on the way to that road win. By contrast, the Tar Heels were dominated on the boards in the losses to UAB and Texas, allowing over 20 offensive rebounds in each.
The earlier loss to Belmont in November was mostly a result of missed defensive assignments and poor ball-handling down the stretch. After allowing Belmont’s J.J. Mann to close the game with three straight threes on open looks and looking offensively disorganized in the last few possessions, Williams took the blame for “letting his team down” with his coaching. He did not share a similar opinion about the Texas loss. In the postgame press conference, a clearly frustrated Williams was not pleased at all with his team’s play, calling its first half effort “ridiculous.”
Of course, the Tar Heels’ free throw shooting has also played a big role in the six games we’re looking at here. In the three wins UNC has managed to shoot 64.5 percent from the foul line. While not great, that far exceeds the awful 47.2 percent the team has shot in their three losses. This looks like it will be a problem all year, and the best that Tar Heel fans can hope for each game is that they’re merely average from the stripe. It’s even worse if you take away Marcus Paige’s 91 percent shooting (52-of-57 for the season). The rest of the team is 137-of-262 on the year for a pitiful mark of 53 percent. With that sample size it’s safe to say that those other players are just bad free throw shooters and probably will continue to struggle no matter how many reps they take in practice. Perhaps the newly reinstated Leslie McDonald can help somewhat with the problem, taking trip-to-the-line possessions away from the bad shooters.
At least with McDonald’s return to the lineup, North Carolina is a much more balanced team, as evidenced in it’s season-high nine three-point baskets made versus Texas – including a 4-of-9 performance from McDonald (outdoing the season total of everyone on the team but Paige). But as fate would have it, on the night the Tar Heels added a player, they lost one too. Starting center Joel James suffered what appeared to be a serious knee injury in the opening minute of play. He will have an MRI done to determine the damage, but the initial prognosis was not good. James was giving the Heels a solid post presence, particularly on defense. The team is deep in the frontcourt so they should be able to compensate with freshmen Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks available for more minutes. And finally there appears that there will be resolution by the end of this week regarding P.J. Hairston‘s ongoing limbo. At that point this consistently inconsistent North Carolina team can at least move beyond what has surely been a huge distraction through the first month-plus of the season, and maybe start to find some semblance of consistency that will cut down on the yo-yo performances the rest of their season.