Heels struggling with injuries and confidence, but don't count 'em out
Three opposing assistants concluded that UNC still can rebound this season
This year's backcourt is a far cry from last season's remarkably productive group
When UNC is healthy, it's capable of beating anyone in the wide-open ACC
When it comes to diagnosing the problems behind North Carolina's 12-7 start, a few different methods are available. One is to find correlations between the Tar Heels' on-court performance and Roy Williams' various shirt-and-tie combinations, as the sartorial trackers at The Rafters have done, concluding that UNC is best off when its coach wears "a solid gold tie with some kind of line or dot pattern, no pocket square and a blue plaid shirt." Doing this will lead to Williams calling you a "dadgum idiot," so it may not be the best way to proceed.
Another method is to look at how the Tar Heels' efficiency does (or doesn't) stack up to that of Williams' last post-title team, from 2005-06, as Basketball Prospectus did last week -- a good idea that inevitably led to even more debate. The topic remains fresh as Carolina looks to start turning its season around on Tuesday night against N.C. State, so as a companion to Stewart Mandel's stumbling-dynasties story, I talked with three assistant coaches (each from a different team, not limited to the ACC) who have prepared scouting reports on the Heels in '09-10. After the coaches' anonymous intel was pooled, a few conclusions emerged:
None of the coaches believed that Carolina was doomed -- they just thought the Heels have been besieged by injuries. "They aren't going to use the injuries as an excuse, but that's what the reality [of the struggle] is," the first assistant said. "When you're as inexperienced as they are, and you don't have a consistent lineup, it's hard to find your way -- especially now when you could be missing two of your top three field-goal attempt guys in [Ed] Davis and [Tyler] Zeller."
I was urged by one coach to break down just how many of UNC's 19 games the top seven players in their rotation had missed, so here goes (losses marked with asterisks):
PG Larry Drew: None.
SG Marcus Ginyard: Presbyterian (bruised left foot), Rutgers, Albany and College of Charleston* (sprained right ankle).
SF Will Graves: College of Charleston* (sprained right ankle).
PF Ed Davis: Wake Forest* (sprained left ankle).
F/C Deon Thompson: None.
BF Tyler Zeller: Clemson*, Georgia Tech* and Wake Forest* (stress fracture in right foot).
BG Dexter Strickland: Presbyterian (strained left hamstring).
Davis (likely) and Zeller (surely) will be out against the Wolfpack, making it UNC's eighth game this season at less than full strength. And the thing is, as the second assistant said, "They're a pretty good team at full strength. Go back and watch the Kentucky game: They came back from 19 down on the road to make it close. They did a good job with Michigan State and Ohio State [both wins], and they were beating Syracuse after one half. They're gonna get a lot better than they have been in the ACC once everyone's healthy."
Carolina's recent string of losses -- at College of Charleston on Jan. 4, at Clemson on Jan. 13, vs. Georgia Tech on Jan. 16, and vs. Wake Forest on Jan. 20 -- have led to what the assistants thought was a "crisis of confidence" and a "lack of identity." One coach said he thought it may have started with the College of Charleston game, which UNC lost in overtime despite leading by 11 points with four minutes left in regulation. "When you blow a lead like that, to a team like that, even if you don't have Ginyard and Graves, I think doubts start to creep in about your ability to win games when you're that inexperienced," the second assistant said. Indeed, the Tar Heels' next road trip, to Clemson, resulted in an 83-64 loss in which their confidence appeared to be at a season low.
The identity issues -- "You knew who they were last year, with Tyler [Hansbrough] playing extremely hard inside, and [Ty] Lawson and [Wayne] Ellington attacking you from outside, but they haven't established what they are yet this year," the third assistant said -- could be the result a few things, including injuries and ineffective guard play. No one disputes that Carolina should be a team that pounds the ball into the post to exploit its advantages there in size and talent, but with Davis and Zeller out for varying stretches, and not enough long-range shooting firepower to keep defenses honest, that has been difficult.
The Tar Heels' turnovers are way up from last season (occurring on 21.6 percent of possessions as opposed to 16.5), but turnovers aren't the only problem for their backcourt, the coaches said. It's more of a combination of turnovers, lack of consistent shooting ("When they're hitting jump shots, they can be scary," the third assistant said), and inexperience leading to inefficiency on fastbreaks that's led to their drop from 1.242 points per possession in '08-09 to 1.104 in '09-10.
"Roy wants to play a fast pace, and a key to that is having guards who can make decisions at that speed," the first assistant said. "They're showing signs of getting better at it -- they're good players, and it's natural for that to happen when you're young -- but you see some turnovers that you wouldn't normally see them make."
To get a sense of the drop-off in efficiency between UNC backcourts, take a look at the following two tables, which compare the Offensive Efficiency Ratings, three-point percentages and turnover rates of the title team's guards to this year's guards:
Teams can afford to defend Carolina's guards more aggressively because they aren't great at generating their own offense. "I think you can be physical with their perimeter guys because they won't be able to make plays," the second assistant said. "They want to run their secondary break, but if you disrupt it by being really aggressive, we felt like they couldn't create things once it broke down." Whereas Lawson, Ellington and Green were able to shoot and attack the rim in any situation without turning the ball over, the current guards are different: Drew has a solid assist-to-turnover ratio (nearly 2-to-1) but is an infrequent scorer; Ginyard is defensive-oriented and has a limited scoring role; and Graves is more of a spot-up shooter.
This has been a season, at least in ACC play, where opposing guards have been the aggressors: Virginia Tech's Malcolm Delaney scored 26 against them (earning 14 free-throw attempts), Clemson's Demontez Stitt scored 20, Georgia Tech's Iman Shumpert scored 30 and Wake Forest's Ish Smith and C.J. Harris scored 20 apiece. In that game against the Demon Deacons last Wednesday, the flat-footed Tar Heels yielded their worst points-per-possession figure of the season, at 1.191, which dragged their national defensive efficiency ranking down to 69th.
But remember -- as the assistants pointed out -- that Davis and Zeller were on the bench against Wake. As bad as Carolina looked in that game, it's still the team that, at full strength on Dec. 5 in Lexington, held Kentucky -- the now No. 1-ranked, 19-0 Wildcats -- to their worst offensive showing of the season, at 0.921 points per possession. If the Tar Heels can at least revert to that version of themselves, they're capable of beating anyone in the wide-open ACC.
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