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Puzzling Tar Heels

Williams still trying to make UNC's talented pieces fit

Posted: Thursday November 23, 2006 2:12AM; Updated: Thursday November 23, 2006 2:12AM
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NEW YORK -- As I watched North Carolina coach Roy Williams work his substitutions during the Tar Heels' 82-74 loss to Gonzaga Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, I couldn't help but think that Williams resembled a couch potato feverishly working his remote control in search of a watchable channel. Zap! Wes Miller for Wayne Ellington. Zap! Danny Green for Reyshawn Terry. Zap! Bobby Frasor for Tywon Lawson. No, Lawson! No, Frasor! If Williams could have punched up Dancing with the Stars, I have no doubt he would have sent Emmitt Smith to the scorer's table as well.

When all was said and done, a whopping 12 players took the floor for North Carolina, nine of whom played 12 minutes or more. Through it all, Willliams -- and North Carolina -- never got comfortable. When the Tar Heels had their best stretch of the game, cutting Gonzaga's 16-point lead to two points with 4:17 to play, their three heralded freshmen (guards Lawson and Ellington and power forward Brandan Wright) were all on the floor. Yet, those greenhorns did not have the ability to get the Heels over the hump, so Williams went back to his bench for more experience. Said a frustrated Williams afterward, "It's hard to come back when you have guys who aren't running the right stinking play."

Though Williams said he learned "a lot of negative things" about his team during the loss, at least he's learning. It won't always look pretty as he scavenges for the right combinations, but it seems inevitable that he's headed for a lineup that leans heavily on his three heralded freshmen. For the forseeable future that will be a mixed bag. While Wright (21 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks) was UNC's best player against Gonzaga, Elllington struggled from the field (2 for 11, including 1 for 7 from 3-point range) and Lawson had just one assist and two turnovers in 23 minutes.

Williams has always liked to deploy a deep rotation, which enables him to push the tempo for 40 minutes and wear down opponents. But even he would concede that you can't go 12 deep all the time. Realistically, the max is nine guys, with the ninth averaging around 10 minutes per game. If that means some players aren't happy, so be it. This ain't Little League.

Meanwhile, as Carolina's guards struggled, sophomore center Tyler Hansbrough was held to nine points and just five field goal attempts in 32 minutes. It was just the second time in 35 games as a collegian that Hansbrough failed to score in double figures. A lot of that should be credited to Gonzaga, which got physical with Hansbrough and surrounded him with four beefy frontline players -- most notably 6-foot-11 sophomore Josh Heytvelt, who had 19 points, eight rebounds and three blocks, two of which were on Hansbrough. Yet it was also startling to see Hansbrough get visibly frustrated amidst the banging. Williams said after the game Hansbrough may have done the worst job Williams has seen of moving without the ball. He had to yank his star a couple times just to calm him down.

So let's add this to the list of negative things Williams learned about his team Wednesday: Hansbrough could very well be the best player in the country, but his offensive skills are limited. His greatness stems from his ability to out-muscle and out-work his opponents, but if someone takes that advantage away from him, he needs to develop a Plan B. He also needs more help from his teammates. He didn't get either Wednesday night.

In the grand scheme of things, North Carolina's loss to Gonzaga was only a minor setback, the likes of which we should expect from a team that relies on so many players with so little experience. But make no mistake: This roster is teeming with talent. It may take a while for Williams to find what he's looking for, but once he's ready to put down that remote we'll be treated to one very entertaining show.


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