Will Tar Heels learn from Indiana beating?

Cohesion, toughness, rebounding, defensive speed all lacking

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 29, 2012 

— Asked after North Carolina’s 83-59 loss at Indiana on Tuesday night to name the one problem the Tar Heels most needed to fix, James Michael McAdoo could have talked about his team’s lack of toughness, its inability to rebound effectively or its failure to defend in transition.

Instead, McAdoo, the Heels’ sophomore forward, thought about the question for a quick moment and said, “I just think we need to really work on our camaraderie, I would say.”

Of all the things that went wrong for UNC on Tuesday night – and most everything that could have, did – what struck McAdoo the most was how lost he and his teammates felt when things started going badly. It was never pretty for UNC, not even during the first 15 minutes when it matched the Hoosiers point for point.

The Heels were tied with Indiana, 31 all, with about four minutes to play in the first half. Then it all came apart.

Will Sheehey gave the Hoosiers the lead for good with a layup, Victor Oladipo made two free throws after an intentional foul and Cody Zeller, Indiana’s sophomore forward who once considered following his older brother, Tyler, to UNC, scored on a dunk. Suddenly, the crowd rocked at Assembly Hall.

The Tar Heels never recovered from Indiana’s initial surge, and the score only became more lopsided. All the while, McAdoo and his teammates looked at one another and wondered who would provide relief. No one did.

“We’re great off the court,” McAdoo said. “But on the court I feel like when they were going on that run, we were kind of all looking to each other when we should have been just coming together as a team … knowing that not one person – not me, not anyone – had to make one spectacular play that was going to bring us back.”

A lot of UNC’s problems on Tuesday night appeared in plain black and white in the box score. Indiana outscored the Tar Heels 19-6 on turnovers, and 19-10 on second-chance points. In other areas, the final stats might not have done justice to UNC’s mistakes. The Hoosiers, for instance, routinely beat the Heels in transition for easy points.

Perhaps the most telling sequence of the game came when Reggie Bullock, the UNC junior guard, scored his team’s first points of the second half on a tip-in with about 15 minutes to play. Bullock’s layup came after the Heels missed their first 11 shots of the second half but, even then, UNC wasn’t inspired enough to get back on defense.

Five seconds after Bullock’s tip-in, Zeller, who had sprinted down the court, scored on a layup.

“I thought it was the middle brother, Tyler, because that’s what he used to do for us,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I told the guys at halftime, I said, ‘That’s what I’m trying to get you to do,’ and I’m looking at our freshmen in there nodding their heads.

“But still, they weren’t getting back, catching him on the break.”

Those problems were all obvious enough for the Heels on Tuesday. Others weren’t weren’t as tangible.

McAdoo spoke of a lack of on-court cohesion among players, and Williams described a team that attempted to do too much individually. After the Heels’ trip to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational, where UNC finished in third place, Williams criticized his team’s toughness.

That remained an issue at Indiana.

“Toughness can be shown so many different ways,” Williams said on Tuesday night. “Again, I think toughness is the mental approach that, OK, we’ve missed three shots in a row, let’s make sure this is a great shot. And I think we rushed them a little bit tonight.”

During the more difficult moments on Tuesday night, McAdoo and his teammates waited for somebody – anybody – to emerge. In other moments, the Tar Heels became confused with lack of execution, and sometimes placed blame.

Williams described one of those moments, which involved Dexter Strickland, the senior guard.

“One time we have a defensive call, and we were supposed to switch and Dexter didn’t switch and then he’s yelling at somebody else,” Williams said. “And he’s not yelling at them because he’s a bad guy. He’s the one that messed up the defense, he’s yelling at them trying to get them to learn. But he’s the one that made the mistake to start with.”

Inside a quiet locker room down a dark, cold corridor in the depths of Assembly Hall, Williams sat in a small room with his assistant coaches, reading over a box score, while his players packed their things and walked out. The humbling defeat, freshman J.P. Tokoto said, was “definitely a learning experience.”

On his way to the bus, Strickland spoke of mental mistakes that “cost us the game.”

“Simple stuff,” he said, “like not getting back on defense.”

The simplest of mistakes added up and amounted to the worst non-conference loss of Williams’ tenure at UNC. His worst loss overall came nearly a year ago at Florida State, where the Tar Heels suffered a 33-point defeat that called into question their character.

For the rest of the season, Williams kept a “33” written on a board inside the locker room. It was a reminder of what UNC endured that day in Tallahassee, Fla., and the Heels lost just once more in the regular season.

These Tar Heels are similar in name only to those from last season. And the problems then, at Florida State, aren’t at all similar to UNC’s problems now. Still, Williams hopes that his latest blowout defeat comes with the same kind of long-term benefits.

“We’ll find out,” Williams said when asked if this loss at Indiana could serve as a similar turning point. “I’d love to say, ‘Yes, that’s going to happen.’ But we’ll find out.”

Carter: 919-829-8944

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