Sunny morning turned to rainy afternoon by the end of North Carolina’s practice No. 41. The shift in weather outside the sealed Smith Center reflected the Tar Heels’ situation nearly a third of the way through a season they began top-ranked in the nation. To date they haven’t been the power many foresaw, bearing only an intermittent resemblance to the best of Roy Williams’ previous teams in a dozen seasons at his alma mater.
Injuries to key performers obviously undermined cohesion, as has been the case for N.C. State and now Duke. North Carolina’s best player, Marcus Paige, missed the first six games, including a loss at Northern Iowa. Now big man Kennedy Meeks is sidelined for several weeks resting a bruised knee.
Offense hasn’t been a problem, par for the course under Williams, but with and without a full complement of players, the group’s intensity has fluctuated, particularly on defense. Championship-caliber squads may not always execute well, but they do not relent.
“We’ve seen what happens when we didn’t compete hard at the defensive end,” Paige said after a home victory Dec. 16 against overmatched Tulane. “At this point there’s no more time or reason for us to have a lackluster effort defensively. That’s the number one thing that causes us to struggle in games.
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“When we’re locked in, we’re not perfect but when we’re scrambling, when our effort is there, it’s hard to beat us.”
So why, then, the cerebral senior was asked, does a unit that dazzled prognosticators with the rare advantage of four returning starters, that retained nine of last season’s top 10 in minutes played, that advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2015 and aspires to go farther in 2016, fall prey to lapses in effort?
“That’s a tough question to answer,” Paige said. “If I could answer that, then we’d be undefeated right now. I don’t know how to answer that.”
Williams admittedly seeks answers too, although he has a strong notion where they might lie. He’s been preaching attention to detail since the preseason, when he posted a chart in the locker room listing last year’s dissipated second-half leads, along with the written challenge to players: “What can you do to help us finish?”
When the Tar Heels met with the media in mid-October, to a man they parroted their coach’s message, speaking of “doing the little things” that often separate victory from defeat.
Yet a Dec. 12 trip to play at unranked Texas, recalibrating under new coach Shaka Smart, demonstrated a gap between professed understanding and the execution necessary to become a superior team.
UNC’s practices have included a formal “thought for the day” since Dean Smith commanded the Chapel Hill sidelines. At the first practice after returning from the 84-82 loss in Austin the printed plan offered: “Never let a difficulty stop you; it may be only sand on your track to prevent slipping.”
But Williams’ verbal message was more pointed. Across the 160-minute, exam-break workout, he repeatedly cited a key weakness – the differential between the Longhorns and Tar Heels in second-chance points, the result of failing to control the defensive boards.
Even the half-dozen pre-approved onlookers in the stands could decipher the shorthand when Williams loudly proclaimed “21 to 7” throughout practice, throwing in a “friggin’” now and then as a modifier in case his displeasure was not entirely evident.
An experienced team should have a decided advantage on defense, Williams told the media prior to taking on Texas. “I think that there’s no question that the accumulation of practices and drills and all those things does help,” he said. “You’ve got to know what to do and how to do it. ... I think the experience factor may be more important in learning the defensive habits and everything than it is in any other part of the game.”
In preparation for the tough Longhorns, UNC coaches stressed the importance of limiting their opponent’s offensive rebounds. So it was disappointing that, in a game ultimately decided by a buzzer-beating jumper, the key possession was extended by the last of the Longhorns’ 16 offensive boards. That compared with 4 for North Carolina, the fewest in a game during Williams’ tenure. Center Cameron Ridley, a 6-10, 290-pound senior, single-handedly had more offensive rebounds (six) than UNC.
Still, there’s not much wrong with the Tar Heels (9-2) that can’t be corrected, nor many teams anywhere that are markedly better. The college season is a 6-month-long tutorial, with 90-some team practices and around three dozen games. The lessons of December will shape the prowess of March, successes and failures serving as instructional fodder.
That means there’s ample time for improvement. For all of UNC’s undeniable depth at every position, and supposed seasoning, most of its players either have holes in their individual games or haven’t quite mastered the imperatives of the Williams-Smith universe. Those fixable flaws are magnified when the standards of measure are uncommonly high.
There’s also the burden of history – not the bannered blizzard of salutes to past glories gracing the Dean Dome rafters, but the fact most preseason No. 1 squads from the ACC wind up falling short of expectations.
The 2015-16 Tar Heels are the 19th ACC team since 1970 to begin a season atop the Associated Press poll. (That’s 4 of every 10 preseason No. 1s produced by the ACC over nearly a half-century.) Of the preceding 18 top-ranked league squads, including two under Williams at North Carolina (2008 and 2009), only six finished the season in the Final Four. And only the Tar Heels of 1982 and 2009, and Duke in 1992, advanced from No. 1 at the outset to win the national championship in the end.
The fact UNC fell from third to No. 11 in the AP poll after the Texas loss doesn’t mean much. Sports polls are more impressionistic than scientific; only the most conscientious voters are well-acquainted with the panoply of teams they compare. It is worth noting, however, that of the preceding ACC teams that left the gate as No. 1, only UNC in 1978 and Duke in 1979 and 1989 fell as low as a double-digit ranking during the ensuing season.
Whether the 2015-16 Tar Heels can defy past norms and match Williams’ best teams, either in the polls or on the court, remains an intriguing uncertainty.
“I could say yes, but it’s going to require a lot more because those teams were a lot more gifted,” the coach says of his 2005, 2009 and 2012 squads, reeling off the wealth of high NBA draft choices they contained. “That’s not on this team. That’s not on this team.”
Williams’ assessment of the current group’s talent level comes despite the presence of six McDonald’s All-Americans, including the ACC’s preseason co-player of the year in Paige, and a potential lottery pick in long-limbed, multitalented Justin Jackson. “But that’s not what you look at,” he says. “You look at how five guys mesh together, how five guys defend together, and all those kind of things, too.”
Which is why reminders of “21 to 7,” a disparity that cost so dearly at Texas, may prove a more important marker on the road to postseason prosperity than any power rating, poll ranking or tournament seeding the Tar Heels ultimately command.