Don't put a toe tag on Heels just yet
Posted January 10
Even as Roy Williams goes about beating himself up and UNC’s basketball players progressively act as though their season has fallen under the spell of a Ouija board, it’s worth taking a deep breath and looking back on last season.
Two ACC games into their 2012-13 schedule, the Tar Heels were 0-2 in the conference with back-to-back 9-point losses to Virginia and Miami.
Overall, the ’12-’13 team was 10-4 on Jan. 10, exactly one year ago. Williams and his player were completely distraught.
“If I knew what’s wrong, I’d already changed it,” Williams, openly frustrated, said during his postgame remarks after the loss to Miami in Chapel Hill.
Both losses were marked by errant perimeter shooting, late-game defensive lapses and sloppy ball-handling.
“When you’re a basketball player at Carolina, people expect a lot of things of you,” Williams went on to say after the Miami game. “I’ve got some really good kids that are hurting right now, and they’re also feeling a little bit of stress. There’s no question about that.”
This season’s team is 0-2 in the ACC, 10-5 overall, mired in a shooting slump, creating unforced turnovers and a big underdog entering Saturday’s noon game at No. 2 Syracuse (15-0, 2-0).
While it’s possible that Syracuse is the best team in the nation right now and could go all the way to the Final Four, the situation is still eerily similar to the day before Carolina went to Florida State as 6-point underdog and won 77-72 last season.
The star in that win was P.J. Hairston with a career-high 23 points. And from Tallahassee, the Tar Heels went on finish 25-11 overall, 12-6 in the league and landed a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Two seasons ago, Carolina lost 90-57 at Florida State on mid-Jan. 14, 2012 and was pronounced DOA upon its return to Chapel Hill. That team finished 32-6 (14-2 ACC) and very well may have won the national title had it not been for playmaker Kendall Marshall’s injury in the NCAAs.
McDonald needs to man up
The lesson is clear. History has taught us time and again not to bury Carolina basketball teams in January.
Odds are, the Heels will give Syracuse a lot of trouble even though the Carrier Dome is a miserable basketball venue that often plays wicked tricks on perimeter shooters.
For Williams, this team is a work in progress and likely will remain so.
We saw in Wednesday’s 63-57 loss to Miami (9-6, 1-2) and in the 73-67 loss at Wake Forest (11-4, 1-1) on Jan. 5, Williams’ team obviously was uncomfortable offensively, which is understandable.
The impact of the loss of Hairston for the season and Leslie McDonald for the first semester was skewed by sensational wins over Michigan State, Kentucky and Louisville.
But against coaches and teams thoroughly familiar with Carolina’s strengths and weaknesses, defensive perimeter emphasis on Marcus Paige, McDonald, freshman Nate Britt and sophomore J.P. Tokoto has been intensified.
Both Wake and Miami did everything possible to shut down Paige, who had been able to carry the offense in non-league games.
Now there has to be adjustment – learning through losses.
It starts with McDonald, a senior. He needs to become a leader, step up and convert enough perimeter jumpers to pull defensive attention away from Paige, particularly in offensive transition.
James Michael McAdoo and Tokoto need to make opponents pay for sending them to the free-throw line. Offensive rebounding needs to be turned into a consistent weapon rather than a here today, gone tomorrow guessing game.
The defense has been effective most of the time, but more consistency is needed there as well.
The season has changed on Carolina. With Hairston, the Heels probably would have been a national top-5 team start to finish.
What’s left is a group with far less potential but one that’s still good enough to win 10 or 11 conference games and finish in the top 25.
The Heels may not reach that potential, but don’t put a toe tag on them just yet.