Both Leslie McDonald and J.P. Tokoto fouled out of then-No. 15 North Carolina’s loss to Pittsburgh at the ACC tournament, but their absence wasn’t nearly as damaging as their lack of contributions on the court.
Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo combined for a commendable 42 points against Pittsburgh, McDonald and Tokoto only five as the Tar Heels lost by five, storming back after a miserable first half.
The Tar Heels are not going to go as far as Paige and McAdoo can take them, as talented as those players are. They cannot do it alone. The Tar Heels probably are going to go as far as McDonald and Tokoto can take the team.
As the Tar Heels prepare to face 11th-seeded Providence in the NCAA tournament Round of 64 Friday in San Antonio, getting consistent offensive contributions from McDonald and Tokoto might not be the only issue the Tar Heels are facing after their 12-game winning streak turned into a two-game losing streak, but it might be the most pressing.
“Our whole team is aware we want to have other guys. We want balance,” Paige said Tuesday. “We’ve had that at some parts this year, and at others we’ve relied too heavily on jump shots and myself and James Michael creating shots.”
The offensive-minded post tandem of Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson and backup guard Nate Britt also can contribute, but when it comes to taking some of the load off Paige and McAdoo, the bulk of the responsibility falls to McDonald and Tokoto.
During North Carolina’s winning streak, McDonald averaged 11.3 points. In the two most recent losses, he scored a total of 12, including a shutout against Pittsburgh in Greensboro. He wasn’t always consistent over that span – he hit double figures in only six of the 12 wins – but he contributed more often than not.
The same goes for Tokoto, who averaged 9.2 points during the streak, also hitting double figures in six of the 12 games. He had six on 3-for-9 shooting in the regular-season loss at then-No. 4 Duke and five on 2-for-8 shooting in the Pittsburgh game.
“I think it starts with us running the ball better,” Paige said. “We’ve done a terrible job of getting out in transition lately. In the half-court offense, usually the ball ends up in my hands or James Michael’s hands, and we have to create a play. It’d be nice to get in transition and get everybody going.”
McDonald’s scoring is especially important because he’s the Tar Heels’ only 3-point threat beyond Paige, making him an essential part of North Carolina’s attack against zone defenses; he also doesn’t typically make the same kind of contributions rebounding or on defense that Tokoto does.
“He’s got to play better, make some shots and be more effective for us,” coach Roy Williams said, bluntly.
Tokoto typically is at his best in transition, but in the overtime win at N.C. State in particular he showed an ability to create his own shot that proved crucial in the first half, before Paige took over in the second and overtime to come out on top of his head-to-head duel with T.J. Warren.
McDonald was a nonfactor in that game against the Wolfpack, just as Tokoto wasn’t a major contributor in the snow-delayed home win against Duke, when McDonald had 21 points. North Carolina still won both.
The Tar Heels don’t need both McDonald and Tokoto going all the time. But they do need both of them going some of the time, and one of them going all of the time.