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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tar Heels crater in surreal fashion versus Seminoles

Posted by on Sat, Jan 14, 2012 at 8:11 PM

Zeller played Carolina basketball — no one else did
ESPN — Almost exactly one year ago, North Carolina suffered a blowout at Georgia Tech that led to Kendall Marshall’s insertion into the starting lineup and proved a catalyst for the Tar Heels as they marched to a 14-2 ACC record and appearance in the Elite Eight.

This afternoon, the Heels dropped their conference road opener to Florida State by a shocking 90-57 margin that cast unexpected doubt about UNC’s true viability as a national championship contender.

After Georgia Tech in 2011, most fans directed their ire at Larry Drew, the former Tar Heel point guard who soon exited school after Roy Williams demoted him in favor of Marshall.

But Drew isn’t around to serve as this team’s villain. Four of Carolina’s five starters were subpar against FSU, and the issue extended beyond mere poor play—the ‘Noles established dominance early and out-fought UNC throughout the contest.

John Henson, considered a potential first-team All-American, scored just 10 points with three rebounds, missed all seven (!) of his free throw attempts and picked up a technical foul for petulantly swatting the ball away from an opponent in the second half.

Harrison Barnes, another All-American candidate, shot just 5-for-13 from the floor and committed five turnovers.

Dexter Strickland, who in fairness played on a gimpy ankle, damaged the team less in terms of errant shots but was ineffective defensively and scored only four points.

Then there was Marshall, who played arguably the worst game of his career. The Cousy Award (nation’s best point guard) finalist shot 2-for-8 en route to six points and dished out only four assists against seven turnovers.

Tyler Zeller stood out as the exception. He scored efficiently and played tough defense, finishing with 14 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks.

After the debacle, some fans stormed to the message boards demanding lineup changes—just like last year in the wake of Georgia Tech—but the reserves hardly made their case. Reggie Bullock scored a meek six points in 23 minutes while P.J. Hairston shot 0-for-8 and committed a couple turnovers. The primary frontcourt reserve, James Michael McAdoo, had no points or rebounds in his 10 minutes.

Defense also was extremely poor. FSU’s Deividas Dulkys scored a career-high 32 points, and as a team the Seminoles knocked in 48 percent from the field and 44 percent on threes. By contrast, UNC hit just 37 percent from the floor and 19 percent from deep, continuing the severe downturn after hot shooting early in the season.

A non-basketball controversy also emerged. Reportedly at FSU coach Leonard Hamilton’s advice, Williams and the players on the bench—the walk-ons were in the game at the time—exited early for the locker room due to the impending surge of fans rushing the court.

Sending players to the lockers early is difficult to argue against given the potential for injury in a stampede, but the fact that Williams himself left as well has generated intense criticism. Yes, some assistants stayed to help shepherd the refugees to safety following the contest, but does the head coach owe all of his players the courtesy of personally monitoring their safety?

There’s no point belaboring the game further: Apart from the 2010 season-long debacle, this may have been the worst performance during the Williams era at Carolina. Rather than funneled criticism toward a single scapegoat, lingering charges that the Heels collectively lack toughness will gain steam. Will this team respond as authoritatively as last season’s?

Moving forward, Carolina travels to Virginia Tech on Thursday night to face a Hokies program that has defeated powerful UNC teams of the past in Blacksburg. The soft, homebound December schedule may have added to Carolina’s problems against FSU, and the Heels must find a way to prevail on the road to avoid dropping to 2-2 in ACC play.

Click here to view the UNC/FSU box score.

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