A young couple left the Smith Center and stepped together into darkness and a slight drizzle. “Looks like it’s going to be a long season,” the man said based on three games played, with at least 30 to go.
Presumably the pair had just watched North Carolina lose 83-80 to Belmont in men’s basketball. That result came two days after the Tar Heels struggled mightily to pull away from an over-matched Holy Cross club on the same Dean Dome court. In both cases North Carolina trailed in the second half.
Few at the Belmont game knew the Bruins had been to the past three NCAA tournaments, or came within a point of catching Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the final half-minute of the teams’ 2011-12 opener.
At Durham, the home team could not stop Belmont’s dribble penetration, as was often the case for the ’12 Blue Devils. Against the Tar Heels an aerial barrage was the key offensive weapon for Rick Byrd’s well-schooled, upperclass-dominated squad. The Ohio Valley Conference team made 15 of 37 3-pointers, the go-ahead shot coming from beyond the arc.
Matching twos with numerous – and accurate – threes often has proved an effective strategy against North Carolina since the days of Dean Smith. Last year Miami blitzed North Carolina by making 15 long-distance shots in 26 tries at Coral Gables, Fla. Duke won at Chapel Hill in 2012 on the strength of 36 long-range jumpers, among the 14 conversions a buzzer-beater by Austin Rivers.
Common as these tactics might be, these are not ordinary circumstances for North Carolina and coach Roy Williams, who blamed himself for the Belmont defeat both in the locker room and at the post-game press conference.
Williams is dealing with a youthful contingent still feeling its way, lacking a consistently vocal leader and more than one reliable 3-point shooter. The coach admitted his team didn’t get sufficient practice in late-game situations, a departure for a program long known to meticulously prepare for every contingency.
“Coach, you can tell he cared a lot,” said guard Marcus Paige, who had three turnovers in the final two minutes. “When things go wrong that he’s going to accept responsibility because he’s a leader and that’s what he does. As players we feel we kind of let him down as well by not executing down the stretch.”
Another enduring North Carolina practice has been avoidance of calling a timeout in the late going. Both Smith and Roy Williams believe players should know what to do in such situations, preferring to attack the defense before it can set up or have time to plot strategy during a timeout.
But the Heels got only an off-balance shot by struggling J.P. Tokoto (2-7 from the floor, 4-16 at the line). The rebound of his miss wound up in Belmont hands, fueling a fast break layup that clinched victory for the visitors. “We didn’t execute at that point, and that’s my fault,” Williams said.
Execrable free throw shooting certainly didn’t help. North Carolina was 22 of 48 at the line, which won’t win many games. While exaggerated, the shortcoming is nothing new – no Tar Heels team has made at least 70 percent of its free throws since the 2009 season.
There’s a lot more to worry about, however, than an early defeat against an estimable opponent, an aberrant foul shooting performance or one botched play. Ironically in a program for which the longstanding motto “Play hard, play smart, play together” is displayed in several prominent backstage Smith Center locations, North Carolina has been brought down indefinitely, and perhaps definitively, by at least one player’s selfish decisions.
So far, the current team’s most established outside shooters have watched games in street clothes on the bench. Among available players only Paige, a solid and versatile sophomore, attempted more than 11 threes in 2013.
The absence of multiple perimeter threats makes it easier for defenses to crowd junior James Michael McAdoo and a host of promising young big men. Even so, McAdoo played one of his best games against Belmont, other than missing 8 of 19 free throws. Joel James and Will Johnson displayed notable improvement over their freshmen efforts as well.
Meanwhile, amidst a swirl of rumors, the team and school await NCAA rulings on the actions of Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston. Coming on the heels of agent shenanigans and academic fraud tied to Tar Heels football, it seems uncertainty, embarrassment and a sense of being at the mercy of others linger at North Carolina like a low-grade fever.
Available evidence indicates McDonald’s unauthorized use of a mouth guard and the manufacturer’s subsequent promotion of that link was an inadvertent misstep.
McDonald’s availability in the lineup would undoubtedly add outside punch. Then again, he’s probably no savior. The squad’s sole senior has never averaged more than 7.2 points or 17.7 minutes per game. Until now McDonald hadn’t earned a single start during his career.
The key to the team’s fortunes, and a central reason most observers expected the Tar Heels to be a top-20 team, remains the availability of P.J. Hairston. The 6-foot-6 wing was last season’s leading scorer (14.6-point average) and most prolific 3-point shooter (6.6 attempts per game).
Hairston’s benching is presumably centered around his use of vehicles rented by a third party. If he knowingly received extra benefits as a student-athlete, he could lose significant playing time. Or rather, significantly more playing time than is already the case.
Perhaps it might be best to simply declare Hairston ineligible for the semester, hope that will teach a lesson, suffice in the eyes of the NCAA and shift the focus back to those who are actually playing.
Whatever the verdict, Hairston’s teammates and coaches will continue to rally around him publicly. That’s the ethic of the locker room.
Williams and staff will adapt. There are, after all, still four other McDonald’s All-Americas on the roster. Any doubts about Williams’ flexibility were banished last year, when he fashioned a formidable, 25-win unit employing an unaccustomed small lineup.
But it’s tough to see a promising season handicapped not by injury or even academic difficulty, but by one person’s simple lack of regard for limits and protocols. The value of teamwork isn’t limited to the basketball court.