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Friday, November 23, 2012

Tar Heels forge divergent identity through early games

Posted by on Fri, Nov 23, 2012 at 11:24 AM

Reggie Bullock is one of UNCs few experienced players.
Fans hoping to watch anything resembling typical Carolina basketball may want to entrench themselves at ACC or NCAA Vault. The 2012-13 edition of the Tar Heels are recovering from personnel from a team last season that included four stars: Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall, John Henson and Harrison Barnes.

Naturally, then, the fresh faces on this year’s squad can’t be expected to pick up where that injury-riddled, Elite Eight club left off. But through the first six games, the Heels not only are younger and less potent: They’re playing a different style of basketball.

Roy Williams receives abundant praise for his ability to teach a fast-paced, inside-out style, the same one that largely defined Carolina basketball during the Dean Smith era. But fans and pundits alike have questioned Williams’ willingness to alter his system to fit any specific team, criticism that reach deafening volume during the abominable 2009-10 season that culminated in a shocking NCAA Tournament miss.

But whatever happens the remainder of this season, Williams already has re-prioritized. Gone is the club’s dominant interior scoring, and thus the Heels have moved their primary offense farther from the basket. The team’s most effective scorer, sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo, prefers to face the rim and utilize his quickness rather than establish position on the low block.

Meanwhile, the center position remains puzzling. Sophomore Desmond Hubert started the first several games but has begun to play sparingly and ceded his starting spot to skinny freshman Brice Johnson on Wednesday night. Another freshman, Joel James, also has earned playing time and possesses significant bulk.

Williams’ rotational management itself marks a departure. He has stated repeatedly through the years that he prefers to set a starting lineup early and avoid making changes. He believes that role development and chemistry benefit from the consistency. For this team, however, there’s no clear answer at center and — as Butler made clear in the Bulldogs 82-71 win over UNC this week—specific matchups will call for specific tactics.

The bottom line is that none of the center candidates projects to be a scorer. Along with McAdoo’s face-up style, the offense’s more perimeter approach has proved inevitable.

And with promising overall results. The Heels have notched an early 5-1 record, losing to Butler in the Maui Invitational semifinal but otherwise winning their games handily. Versus admittedly poor opposition, the Heels have demonstrated far more effectiveness shooting three-pointers than they have in recent seasons.

Carolina has knocked down an impressive 39 percent of its three attempts. Last year’s Heels converted just 34 percent, following a 33 percent mark in 2011 and 2010. The national champion 2009 club buried 39 percent.

Don’t expect the club to continue making shots at that high percentage, as the 32 percent shooting versus Butler would suggest. Nevertheless, the Heels have begun to work harder to get those shots and now must establish the required inside-outside balance to prevent defenses from cheating toward the perimeter.

Butler provided an object lesson. The Bulldogs suppressed McAdoo’s output to 10 points and burst through UNC’s weak screens, contesting jump shots that had been open versus lesser opponents. But in terms of individual percentages, the coaching staff must feel confident. Carolina shot poorly the past few seasons even against the sorts of low-majors they’re playing now, and shooter confidence always bears extreme importance.

Junior Reggie Bullock leads the way at 52 percent from deep. He doesn’t boast the quickest release and doesn’t elevate much on his shot, making him easier to defend, but with a little time he has been very effective. Leslie McDonald, back from injury after missing last season, has hit 48 percent.

Sophomore P.J. Hairston suffered through an abysmal freshman season and began this year on rocky footing as well, but he has looked better the past couple games and raised his season three-point average to 35 percent. Most importantly, the three percentage leaders also lead the team in attempts—so Williams’ demanded offensive efficiency remains intact.

The backcourt must improve. Freshman point guard Marcus Paige possesses sound mechanics but has made just 29 percent on threes. Meanwhile, established non-shooter Dexter Strickland has hit just 1-for-8 and likely will receive the red light from Williams very soon.

Examining the picture more broadly, Carolina has attempted 31 percent of its field goal attempts from behind the three-point arc. Last year’s team hoisted only 23 percent of its shots from that same territory. UNC never will be Duke — the Devils fired up 39 percent of their shots from deep last season — but this year the difference between the two offensive philosophies won’t be nearly as stark.

Not only has the team’s offensive nature transformed, the club’s sheer physical profile has changed as well. Williams began tinkering with small lineups in Maui, utilizing Hairston and freshman wing J.P. Tokoto at power forward. Against quicker opponents and particularly if the center position continues to deliver middling results, the small lineups could become more prevalent as the season evolves.

This team’s realistic ceiling may be a top-three ACC finish and trip to the Sweet 16. No one wants to ponder the floor, but Butler gave UNC an unwelcome sneak preview. Perhaps the takeaway is that Williams himself has demonstrated more willingness thus far to defy his own system, avoiding the very late and ultimately futile adjustments he made in 2010.

Carolina’s next big test will occur on Tuesday night at Indiana. The Hoosiers rank as the nation’s No. 1 team and will host UNC in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Almost no one expects the Heels to win that game, but Williams’ early-season tinkering should help more than it hurts. For now, that will just have to do.

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This team’s realistic ceiling may be a top-three ACC finish and trip to the Sweet 16. No one wants to ponder the floor, but Butler gave UNC an unwelcome sneak preview.

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