For a while now it has seemed like only a matter of time before North Carolina would begin shooting better, only a matter of time before the Tar Heels’ shooting slump, which persisted on Monday after a temporary weekend reprieve, would end.
But now, after UNC’s 71-65 defeat at Louisville on Monday night, it is becoming more difficult to take such assumptions for granted. The Tar Heels’ shooting woes – they made a season-low 34.5 percent from the field at Louisville – can’t possibly last indefinitely.
And yet it’s fair to wonder, after UNC failed to shoot less than 40 percent for the fourth time in five games, when they will cease. UNC coach Roy Williams said more than a week ago, after a sloppy victory at Virginia Tech, that his team’s shooting problems had already tested the limits of his patience.
His team was better on Saturday in an 89-62 victory against Boston College, the weakest team in the ACC, but the Tar Heels regressed against the Cardinals. They missed close shots. They missed ones from behind the 3-point line.
Undoubtedly, the Cardinals’ defense had a lot to do with UNC’s inefficiency. Louisville used, with success, a match-up zone defense that often left the Tar Heels frustrated at their inability to work the ball inside to their post players.
Even when UNC found open looks against the Cardinals, though, it rarely capitalized. Which left Williams sounding exasperated afterward. He cut off a question about his team’s shooting that first referenced Marcus Paige, who missed 10 of his 13 shots from the field on Monday.
“He hasn’t shot it worth a frankety-frank for four or five games,” Williams said. “Am I supposed to put him out, send him to Siberia? He’s one of the greatest kids I’ve ever coached, I’m going to stick with him, I’m going to coach him. He’s going to try to take shots.
“I don’t have any potion that I can rub on him.”
The Tar Heels’ recent shooting problems extend beyond Paige, though. Joel Berry, the sophomore point guard, missed nine of his attempts from the field against Louisville.
And in the game’s most critical moments, when the Tar Heels were desperately trying to keep alive hope that they could rally late in the second half, they missed shot after shot. They missed their final five of the game against Louisville, and 10 of their final 12.
Williams said cold shooting stretches are “part of the game” and he was quick to point out, too, that UNC won its other three games when it shot less than 40 percent. In those games – against N.C. State, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech – the Tar Heels had more talent and depth.
Those two qualities alone weren’t enough for UNC against Louisville. Williams’ team simply needed to find a way to score against a difficult zone defense, and it too often couldn’t.
“We haven’t shot the ball well,” Williams said. “I’ve told some of you guys, some of you guys play golf. You get the yips, you go to the long putter. Hell, there’s no long putter in basketball. …
“I don’t think there’s some secret potion or anything.”
The Tar Heels’ inability to make shots recently contrasts with how they often performed earlier this season. Starting with a victory against Maryland on Dec. 1 and ending with a victory against Syracuse on Jan. 9, the Tar Heels shot at least 50 percent in 10 of their 11 games.
Inexplicably, though, the shots suddenly stopped falling the way they had been. The first signs of the team-wide slump – the one independent of the one Paige is enduring – came during a victory against N.C. State on Jan. 16, when UNC made 37.9 percent of its attempts from the field.
At the time it seemed like a one-game anomaly. Then UNC shot 38.4 percent in a win against Wake Forest, and 37.9 percent in the victory at Virginia Tech – the one that had Williams saying afterward that “three games is enough.”
And now three games’ worth of poor shooting has turned into four.
“We’re a better shooting team than we’ve showed for the past couple of weeks,” Paige said. “And I play a big role in the team’s 3-point success and I’ve been struggling recently. But we’re a better shooting team than we’ve shown for the past couple of weeks.”
Paige said it with a sense of defiance and determination, a confidence that suggests he’s certain it’s only a matter of time before he and the Tar Heels start making shots again. And that has been the assumption for a couple of weeks now, but every game adds to the delay.
At Louisville, the Tar Heels’ starting post players, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, combined to make six of their 10 attempts from the field. But their combined 10 shots were their fewest of the season in a game in which they’ve both played.
The Cardinals’ strategy seemed to be to clog up the interior, limit the Tar Heels’ scoring opportunities on the inside and dare UNC to make the necessary shots to win the game. And the Tar Heels couldn’t, even when they created some of their best chances.