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Thursday, December 6, 2012

On-again, off-again Tar Heel shooters seek consistency

Posted by on Thu, Dec 6, 2012 at 3:28 PM

You can’t say they’re slumping. If anything, North Carolina’s three-point shooters have opened the 2012-13 season on fire. After two years of disappointing accuracy, the Heels finally have rediscovered the touch that enabled them to strike offensive balance during the 2007-09 era.

Carolina has shot threes better on a percentage basis than even Duke — 38-37 —which sports an undefeated record and No. 2 national ranking.

And yet, the Heels themselves have appeared spotty out of the gate. They’ve yet to defeat a top-100 opponent and in their two defeats fell behind by 29 points to both Indiana and Butler, failing to mount an effective scoring attack against quality opposition.

The overall numbers tell one story, and the carnage versus the Hoosiers and Bulldogs screams another. UNC’s 6-2 record and 102-point outburst last weekend versus Alabama-Birmingham sound like the biscuit-loving Tar Heels of norm. They’ve broken triple digits in three of their first eight games, including once (versus Mississippi State, in Maui) on a neutral floor.

Pitted against IU and Butler, however, Carolina squeezed out just 71 and 59 points, respectively.

Numerous factors must be considered to explain such a profound discrepancy, but Carolina’s uneven three-point shooting heads the suspect list.

The team’s three most prolific marksmen—Reggie Bullock, Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston—have combined for 50 made threes at an impressive 44 percent clip. Those numbers are optimal for this team, which lacks a traditional inside presence and must rely more heavily on perimeter scoring.

But now the other shoe drops: In the two defeats, that trio hit only five total threes and at a woeful 25 percent mark. The Indiana disaster proved so thorough that the Hoosiers denied Carolina three attempts altogether, suppressing them to a feeble one-for-eight. Hairston did miss that game due to injury, but even his presence likely would have resulted in nominal improvement.

The overall numbers speak to the fact that this club can shoot. Unlike recent teams that featured players who missed open looks, these Heels’ primary gunners have knocked down jumpers when given enough space and time. The issue, then, has been opponents’ eagerness to capitalize on Carolina’s lack of slashers—they’ve accomplished this by jamming UNC wings without fear that they’ll get beaten off the dribble—and the team’s absence of a low-block scorer that would force their attention inside.

For the Heels to perform successfully against quality opposition, one of two things must occur:

1) They must move themselves and the ball more efficiently within the offense to create open shots;

2) Roy Williams must alter the offense itself substantially to achieve the desired result.

Williams said this week during his radio program that Hairston’s playing time likely will increase, and he’s the one Carolina wing who has demonstrated at least some capacity to both hit jump shots and create off the bounce. Williams’ comments overall speak to more openness to change, unlike in 2009-10 when he and everyone else appeared shocked by the club’s futility.

Clearly, whatever changes occur must transpire soon. UNC’s best chance to notch a marquee non-conference win has passed—Texas, which ordinarily would pose a stiff challenge on the road, has been horrible this season—and thus strength of schedule may be weaker than normal as the NCAA Tournament committee ponders seeding.

Conference play begins in less than a month, and to earn a decent seed the Heels likely will need to compile a 10-6 or better ACC record. For that to happen, they’d best leave the poor shooting efforts behind in 2012.

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