Brice Johnson's offense was a bright spot for North Carolina during the non-conference portion of the schedule. ROBERT WILLETT
CHAPEL HILL — As North Carolina coach Roy Williams said recently, “big-time basketball” is upon us. That being, of course, the start of ACC play. The Tar Heels open the conference portion of their schedule on Sunday night at Virginia, and so now’s as good of a time as there ever will be to take a look back at how UNC fared during the non-conference portion of its schedule.
So without further delay, a look back at the good, the not-so good and everything else in between from the start of the season until now:
Until Saturday, when the Tar Heels beat UNLV at the Smith Center, the non-conference portion of the schedule had been a pretty big disappointment. The Heels before then had lost all three of their most challenging games – against Butler in the Maui Invitational, at Indiana and at Texas – and had no wins of significance. But the victory against UNLV was significant, and it allowed the Heels to salvage something from their non-conference schedule. Still, if you said before the season that UNC would have three losses right now, you’d probably be asking what went wrong. Which is what people have been asking, to an extent.
The Tar Heels played their best game of the season against UNLV. That game was by far UNC’s highlight of the first couple months of the season, and it provided a glimpse of the team the Tar Heels believe they can be.
Some other good things:
--The second half comeback against Butler in Maui. Yes, the Heels ultimately fell short, but they showed some heart and some fight in rallying from a 29-point second-half deficit. UNC made it a six-point game in the final minute before losing.
--The Heels mostly took care of business against teams it shouldn’t have had problems with. There were no real scares against teams like Gardner-Webb, East Carolina, McNeese State, and on and on. Some of those games weren’t pretty, and some left coach Roy Williams unhappy. But still, they were mostly easy victories.
--Individually, several players have had some nice stretches. James Michael McAdoo at the start of the season. Reggie Bullock during the past several weeks. And P.J. Hairston more recently. Those are the only three players averaging in double figures, and all three have provided an indication that better things are to come.
--The freshmen have been solid. Not great. But solid, as a group. Brice Johnson has probably been the most impressive, and is averaging 8.9 points in just 13.6 minutes per game. J.P. Tokoto has provided a spark off the bench, and you can tell that Marcus Paige has a lot of potential at point guard.
THE NOT-SO GOOD
The losses to Butler and to Indiana weren’t all that unexpected – especially the loss at Indiana, which was ranked No. 1 when it blew out the Heels in Bloomington in late November. But the loss at Texas was another story. The Longhorns have some good players, to be sure, but this is a team that had lost to Chaminade in Maui, and a team that entering the UNC game was among the worst offensive teams in the nation.
Yet the Longhorns looked plenty capable offensively against the Heels, who allowed Texas to score 85 points. The Longhorns haven’t come within 10 of that total in any other game this season, and nine times they’ve failed to break 70. UNC did few things right during its disastrous showing in Austin and, given its earlier losses, the performance at Texas called into question the team’s direction, togetherness and potential.
Some other not-so good things:
--Getting to the three throw line and capitalizing on those opportunities have been staples of some of Williams’ best teams, but the Heels have done neither of those things very well so far. UNC is shooting just 64.3 percent from the line, which ranks 282nd nationally. Worse, the Heels’ free throw rate – a stat that reflects how often teams get to the line – ranks 314th nationally. And, finally, free throws have accounted for just 14.9 percent of the Tar Heels’ points, which ranks 338th nationally.
--Entering the conference play, we still don’t know who the Heels’ go-to player is. Bullock was starting to develop into that before suffering a concussion that kept him out of the victory against UNLV. Hairston was that player against UNLV. McAdoo had some moments early on that suggested he was that guy. UNC doesn’t necessarily need one guy to be the alpha. But it does need to be able to count on someone to be that player. So far, no one consistently has been.
--The starting lineup still isn’t settled. Four-fifths of it is. Paige, Dexter Strickland, Bullock and McAdoo have started all season, and will continue to do so. But the fifth spot, at center, remains in flux. Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson have all started there. Hubert is good defensively but sometimes has been lost offensively. After a strong start, James has struggled of late. And as good as Johnson has been offensively, he’s not where Williams wants him to be defensively. It’s a dilemma, what to do with that fifth starting spot, and it doesn’t appear close to being settled.
Williams has said more than once that he believes the Heels will be an improved team by the end of the season, and there’s little reason to doubt that. You have to figure that the freshmen will continue to progress, that Paige will become more comfortable at point guard and that McAdoo and Bullock will continue to improve in their expanded roles. Still, this is a team with plenty of flaws, and few things are likely to come easy for the Heels in conference play. As Williams has said, UNC has little room for error; the Heels will have to play close to their potential in just about every game, or risk losing. Last year, it was clear that UNC had a national championship caliber team. The ceiling for these Tar Heels is far less easy to define, and dependent on innumerable variables, some of which probably haven’t emerged yet. Still, anything less than the NCAA tournament would be a surprise and, it goes without saying, a disappointment.