After another loss in what is becoming a long line of them, North Carolina players spoke again of intangibles – of urgency and intensity not matching that of their opponent.
“We got beat by a team that wanted it more than we did,” freshman forward Justin Jackson said Tuesday after the Tar Heels’ 56-48 loss against N.C. State. “And we just didn’t come out from the jump ball to match the intensity they came out with.”
That has become a familiar refrain, and UNC coach Roy Williams has continued to make a priority out of playing with more effort. Another truth has emerged: the Tar Heels are at their worst in slower games that demand more precision in their halfcourt offense.
The loss Tuesday was, according to data tracked by college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy, the slowest game of the season for the Tar Heels. There were only 60 possessions, and UNC is 1-5 in games with fewer than 65 possessions.
That doesn’t bode well for UNC’s chances on Saturday at Miami, which plays at one of the slowest paces in the ACC. In conference games the Hurricanes average 61.8 possessions per game, which ranks 11th in the league.
Miami has played five games this season with more than 67 possessions and all but one – its 16-point victory at Duke last month – was outside of November or December. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, are 4-7 in games with 67 possessions or fewer. They’re 15-2 otherwise.
Williams has always preferred a fast, up-tempo style. He has said that his team doesn’t come close to playing at the pace he prefers.
The numbers make it even more clear: UNC needs to play in a faster game to be successful. And the slower the pace, the more the Tar Heels struggle.
The Tar Heels’ most impressive – and efficient – offensive performances this season have usually come in more up-tempo games. They scored 93 points against Syracuse – the most the Orange had allowed in nearly six years – in a game with 80 possessions.
They scored 108 points in an easy victory against East Carolina in a game with 77 possessions. That offensive performance was, according to Pomeroy, UNC’s most efficient of the season.
UNC was efficient, too, during its lone victory in a game with fewer than 65 possessions. The Tar Heels proved during their 74-50 victory at Clemson that they’re capable of succeeding in a slower-paced game – that one had 61 possessions – but the slower the pace, the greater the pressure it is to maximize each possession and finish it with a quality shot.
That was a challenge against N.C. State on Tuesday, and it has often been a challenge this season for the Tar Heels to generate what they want out of the halfcourt offense. Late in that defeat against the Wolfpack, with the Tar Heels trying to mount an improbable rally, one of their possessions ended with Kennedy Meeks, the burly 6-foot-9 forward, attempting a 3-pointer.
It was a desperation shot at a desperation moment, and not necessarily indicative of UNC’s struggles in the halfcourt. But it was another sign of the Tar Heels’ failure to execute there.
“No poise is what it was,” Williams said. “We’ve never had a play where our big guy shoots a 3-point shot unless he can really shoot 3s. … But Kennedy didn’t know what to do, so he shot it.
“We had a set play called twice in a row and didn’t execute that, so that’s the coach’s fault.”
Williams coaches his players to run and to create transition scoring opportunities as often as possible. Those chances were virtually nonexistent against N.C. State – and in similarly slow losses against Iowa and Virginia – and they’re likely to be tough to come by at Miami.
Miami vs. No. 15 North Carolina
When: 2 p.m.
Where: BankUnited Center, Coral Gables
Projected starting lineups
Miami (18-10, 8-7 ACC)
G Angel Rodriguez 12.8 ppg, 4.4 apg
G Davon Reed 7.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg
F Sheldon McClellan 15 ppg, 4.8 rpg
F Omar Sherman 5.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg
C Tonye Jekiri 8.8 ppg, 10.5 rpg
North Carolina (17-5, 7-2)
G Marcus Paige 13.3 ppg, 4.5 apg
G J.P. Tokoto 8.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg
F Justin Jackson 9.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg
F Brice Johnson 12.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg
F Kennedy Meeks 12.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg
Key theme: The Tar Heels have lost five of their past seven games, and they’ll attempt to rebound from a humbling 58-46 loss against N.C. State on Tuesday. UNC set a record for its fewest points ever in the Smith Center. This is a difficult matchup for UNC. Miami has a deep guard rotation and Rodriguez, Reed and McClellan are all capable of breaking down a defense with penetration. Miami hasn't been great defensively but plays at a tempo that usually keeps opposing teams from lighting up the scoreboard. The last time UNC played at Miami it suffered an 87-61 loss in 2013.