Is This Roy Williams’ Worst North Carolina Team?Posted by Lathan Wells on January 22nd, 2014
When North Carolina was trekking through an up-and-down non-conference season, all of the talk surrounding the Tar Heels was about their inconsistency. Great wins followed by head-scratching losses meant that pundits and fans alike spent their time trying to diagnose the Tar Heels — attempting to figure out which team identity would become the prevailing one. Now, after a 1-4 start in ACC play, talk of inconsistency is a thing of the past. Wins over Michigan State, Louisville, and Kentucky are long forgotten now that UNC has fallen to Wake Forest and Miami in winnable games, was soundly defeated by Syracuse in its first match-up with the new conference member, and was then thrashed by Virginia on Monday night. A solitary win over an uninspiring Boston College team may have allowed temporary relief, but with Carolina now sporting an 11-7 overall record and looking like an unreliable but average team, the question should be raised: Is this the worst team of the Roy Williams era in Chapel Hill?
When considering the squads Williams has governed at Carolina (and to his credit, Williams has an aggregate record at the school that speaks for itself), most will point to the 2009-10 season as his worst year at the helm. The Tar Heels failed to make the NCAA Tournament that year, stumbling to an overall 20-17 record (5-11 ACC). That team was crippled by the graduations of three-time All-American Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green and the early entries of Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson. While this year’s team lost only Reggie Bullock to the NBA Draft, the ultimate decision to not seek reinstatement for PJ Hairston left the current version of the Tar Heels without two extremely important cogs in their offensive machine. They weren’t the defending national champions by any stretch, but prior to the season they appeared to be a team at least capable of making things interesting in postseason play. Those personnel losses weren’t as substantial, but they have proven very significant in the roster and rotation upheaval they caused Williams’ team.
There are numerous reasons why this year’s team is falling short of expectations (and after the Virginia loss, bordering on panic mode), but in looking at the offensive numbers from that underachieving team four seasons ago, it becomes more clear why this team is struggling in a similar fashion. Their total points per game are almost dead even (74.5 vs. 75.2), and both teams averaged around 16 assists per game. Both are stout rebounding teams, at least in terms of national rankings (third vs. 15th nationally), but also poor shooting squads (shooting roughly 45 percent from the field, placing them far below the nation’s elite offensive units). Williams wants his teams to get out in transition and score points in bunches, so when the Tar Heels are closer to 70 points than the low 80s, they’re clearly not performing the way Williams wants his team to operate.
The numbers are obviously comparable, but what about the makeup of the roster? Much has been made of UNC’s lack of three-point shooting this year, with Hairston out and Leslie McDonald sidelined for nine games (and somewhat ineffective since his return). The 2009-10 team shot 32.9 percent from three; this year’s edition is sitting at a bottom-fifty 30.3 percent. While Marcus Paige has shown he’s an effective option from the perimeter, McDonald has been hot-and-cold and is really the only other long-range threat on the entire roster. That compares favorably with UNC’s previously disappointing edition, in which McDonald was a freshman who didn’t play many minutes and Will Graves was the only true long-range threat. Five years ago, Marcus Ginyard and Larry Drew II were liabilities from deep among the guards playing heavy minutes. This year it’s J.P. Tokoto and Nate Britt.
The rebounding numbers are solid this year, just as they were five years ago, but the makeup of the frontcourt has similar deficiencies. John Henson was a freshman playing out of position at small forward. Isaiah Hicks fills that role now (albeit in fewer minutes), and veteran John Michael McAdoo hasn’t exactly lit it up consistently from the small forward position either. There were freshmen big men available in the Wear twins, but they struggled to be consistent and adapt to major college basketball. That sounds eerily familiar to the struggles of Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, and sophomore Brice Johnson this year, right? Holdover Deon Thompson was asked to become a grizzled veteran and consistent option in the frontcourt following the national championship team; he instead appeared ordinary when not surrounded a former NPOY like Hansbrough. Some have judged McAdoo in much the same way since he lost the security of Tyler Zeller and Henson two seasons ago. There was depth in the frontcourt in that difficult season, just as there is this year, but players were again pressed into roles and situations they probably weren’t prepared for. Conference play has only further illuminated the holes in each frontcourt player’s game on the present Tar Heels squad.
The similarities end between these two editions, however, when you consider how each season began. The 2009-10 team did not have nearly the impressive non-conference performance that this year’s group did (save for having a win over nationally-ranked Kentucky in common), so expectations were probably more realistic on this team from the outset. The big early wins for this year’s team now appears to be a case of young men properly amped for big-time match-ups who have subsequently lost their confidence amid a heavy dose of reality. As a result, a similar final record and possible relegation to the NIT for the second time in five seasons is a distinct possibility. There’s some time to turn things around in conference play, but there’s been little in the team’s performance of late to suggest that they are prepared to do so. Looking for a silver lining, Carolina fans? After the NIT season, the 2010-11 Tar Heels went 29-8 on their way to an Elite Eight appearance . Unfortunately, we live in the present, and the current UNC edition has the unfortunate possibility of being unfavorably compared to, if not supplanting, the 2009-10 team as Roy Williams’ worst since he returned to Chapel Hill. The clock starts ticking on that possibility Sunday against Clemson.