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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Harsh comparisons pester Tar Heels after devastating losses

Posted by on Thu, Nov 29, 2012 at 8:45 AM

Three guards, three outcomes from  2010-11 season. Only Dexter Strickland, center, remains with the Tar Heels.
North Carolina’s 5-2 record looks okay on paper. The Tar Heels finished 2-1 at the Maui Invitational and, as expected, fell to No. 1 Indiana on the road. The squad returns to Chapel Hill for five of its next six games, enabling them to pad their record further in preparation for the ACC schedule.

But the two defeats left the fan base shaken. First was Butler, which restricted the Heels to just 18 points in the first half en route to an 11-point victory, and then there was Tuesday night.

UNC and Indiana played evenly for the game’s first 15 minutes, but the Heels suffered through a horrible second half in which they converted just one of their first 19 shots. The blowout ensued as IU massacred UNC 83-59, and Carolina’s lopsided defeat became the national takeaway from day one of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

You would expect a Hall of Fame coach to receive the benefit of the doubt. Roy Williams captured two national titles during his first nine seasons leading his alma mater, and his consistency at both UNC and Kansas suggests he knows how to win with diverse personnel.

But 2010 didn’t occur that long ago. Any defense one can make thus far about the Butler and Indiana losses could have been made when that woeful team began its slide. A question has surfaced and taken root: Can Williams coach a team effectively in his preferred, uptempo system when he lacks elite talent?

No one disputes that this year’s club lacks ideal performers. The talent drain suffered after last year guaranteed that, and the freshman class—while a bright spot for this team—didn’t arrive with the accolades of previous UNC hauls.

But 18 points in a half? Shooting one-for-19 to begin a different half? How does a team with five McDonald’s All-Americans get whipped by a mid-major?

Williams chiefly has cited injuries to explain the 2010 team’s fate. But while swingman P.J. Hairston did miss the Indiana debacle, Carolina mostly has been healthy thus far. And even without Hairston, most analysts considered wing depth to be a team strength.

Others point to despised point guard Larry Drew as the 2010 club’s miasmatic source. Drew, who transferred abruptly at midseason in 2010-11 after he ceded his starting spot to Kendall Marshall, certainly warranted blame.

But given the core problems hobbling the two teams—mostly, a lethargic offense—upcoming criticism may focus on Williams’ coaching. The 2010 Tar Heels finished that season ranked No. 92 in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Nate Silver-like stats guru Ken Pomeroy.

This year’s team ranks No. 40, not bad but certainly below Carolina’s high water marks: No. 16 (2012), No. 1 (2009), No. 1 (2008), No. 3 (2007), No. 10 (2006) and No. 1 (2005).

The 2006 ranking takes on added importance. In the preseason many pundits compared the 2013 Heels to that team, which had lost its championship nucleus from the prior season and entered the year with significant inexperience and uncertainty.

But the 2006 Heels enjoyed All-American play from freshman Tyler Hansbrough, while senior David Noel provided outstanding leadership. Carolina played uptempo and inside-out, utilizing Hansbrough as the bull he was.

By contrast, the 2010 Heels lacked a consistent interior scorer. Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller both were beset by injuries, and senior Deon Thompson lacked the chops to carry the scoring load. Along with Drew’s problems at point guard, that dreadful year culminated in an NIT appearance.

Frankly, this season’s roster resembles 2010 far more closely than it does 2006. James Michael McAdoo is a fine player but scores most effectively in a utility fashion, rather than establishing post position and delivering high percentage attempts.

Also like 2010, the Heels lack talented slashers who can attack from the wings or a dominant point guard. Freshman floor general Marcus Paige has displayed ample ability and should develop into a quality starter, but only a truly elite talent could absorb UNC’s point guard responsibilities while also performing the role of alpha scorer.

The big question is whether Williams shares the personnel concerns. Like most tenured coaches, he fully believes in his system and pushes his players toward executing it properly. That approach has worked brilliantly throughout his career, with the glaring exception of 2010.

After that experience, how much rope will he extend to the current unit before—if ever—he performs reconstructive surgery on the offense? Conceivably, he could shift the team away from its base freelance offense and institute greater structure. Carolina’s three-point shooters have delivered when they’ve been free for open looks, but the two most potent foes took away those shots because Carolina lacks the interior scoring presence to command their defensive attention.

Williams could opt to call more set plays and screens for wings, who shoot ably when set but don’t excel creating for themselves off the dribble. Knocking in jumpers would open up McAdoo’s room to operate, and thus the offense—while not championship level—at least may enable the club to maintain contact with opponents rather than faceplant as it did twice in just over one week.

Carolina will play just once between now and next week: Saturday's home contest against UAB, helmed by former UNC assistant Jerod Haase. East Tennessee State and East Carolina will follow, and thus the next stiff test likely won’t occur until a road challenge versus Texas on Dec. 19.

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