Tar Heels win but faults still persist

Coach and players questioning what they’re doing wrong, need to get right

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 17, 2012 

  • Next game North Carolina at Texas Wednesday, 9 p.m. TV: ESPN2

— Even when East Carolina cut North Carolina’s once-commanding lead to four points in the final minute of the Tar Heels’ 93-87 victory on Saturday, the Tar Heels never allowed themselves to think they might lose.

“I knew we were going to win the game,” P.J. Hairston, the sophomore guard, said. “But we just should have never let it get that close from the beginning.”

The Heels’ victory was their eighth in their first 10 games but, like some of the wins before it, this one left North Carolina coach Roy Williams and his players thinking more about what went wrong instead of focusing on what went right. And what went wrong on Saturday wasn’t all that much different than usual for the Heels.

They suffered from defensive lapses, especially during the final five minutes, when ECU cut a 15-point deficit to four. Those defensive lapses were primarily twofold: North Carolina left shooters open on the perimeter, and the Heels failed both to switch and to communicate on screens.

The Heels’ offensive rebounding, which hasn’t been a strength, reached a low point on Saturday, when the team’s frontcourt players failed to corral any of North Carolina’s 33 missed field goals. Williams said it was the first time he could remember when an entire frontcourt went a game without an offensive rebound.

Those problems – the defensive lapses, the breakdowns on screens, the failure of the team’s post players to rebound on offense – are all obvious enough. And Williams detailed them all on Saturday. While they attempted to explain what’s holding the Heels back, though, some players described more intangible issues.

Such as a lack of energy. And a lack of cohesion. And an inability to carry practice success to games.

“I guess we didn’t match their energy,” Dexter Strickland, the senior guard, said when asked why the Heels couldn’t put away the Pirates. “And that’s something that we can’t afford in the future…. We just need to do a better job of coming out and being ready to play.”

The Heels did appear ready to play, though. They shot well in the first half on Saturday, and led by 16 points at halftime. It was in the second half, while North Carolina seemed lackadaisical and flat, when the Tar Heels appeared unprepared.

During one timeout in the second half, Williams took to one knee and screamed at his players. He left them with some words to remember, too.

“I think his words were we didn’t have enough sense of urgency – getting 50-50 balls, and not getting a hand up on the shots and them hitting all those 3s,” Strickland said.

As North Carolina’s lone senior scholarship player, Strickland has ascended into a leadership role. In more recent games, even while freshman Marcus Paige continues to start at point guard, Strickland has been most responsible for directing the Tar Heel offense. He finished with a career-high 10 assists on Saturday.

Leadership, though, could be a problem, too – especially given that two players have questioned the team’s chemistry and cohesion. Sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo spoke out about it after the team’s disheartening loss at Indiana on Nov. 27. And on Saturday, junior guard Reggie Bullock questioned whether everyone was “all in it.”

“If we do the things that we’re supposed to do, the game is going to come easy to us,” he said. “If we do what coach wants us to do – use our screens, just play fundamentally sound defense, I just feel we’re one of the best teams in the nation when we play our defense, do the things that we want, get the shots that everybody on the team wants.”

For whatever reason, the Tar Heels have struggled to do what Williams wants them to do. Part of it could be attributable to the team’s youth and its reliance on both inexperienced players and experienced players who are still transitioning into more prominent roles.

Part of it could be that Williams is still experimenting with different player groupings and substitution rotations, including a smaller lineup. In one of those smaller lineups on Saturday, the 6-foot-7 Bullock was the Tar Heels’ tallest player.

“There’s no question that during parts of certain games that we’re going to go small,” Williams said. “… But I don’t foresee us going and starting small and playing small for 30 minutes a game.”

Williams said experimenting with the Heels’ smaller lineup has been a focal point of some recent practices. Not that there were many of those last week, while North Carolina took a break for five days because of exams. If the Tar Heels looked on Saturday like they hadn’t practiced for a while, that’s because they hadn’t, Williams said.

Now, with school out of session until January, the Tar Heels’ lone focus will be to address several deficiencies – both those that show up in the box score, like a lack of offensive rebounding, and those that don’t.

“We really just need to start working together better, on both ends of the floor,” McAdoo said. “And really just carrying over the principles that we learn in practice, where I feel like we’re such a great team, and into the game.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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