If only North Carolina had made a few more shots – a layup here, an open jumper there – its 71-65 defeat at Louisville earlier this week could have easily ended in a victory. The margin between victory and defeat was thin, as wide as the inches between a made shot and a miss.
But then there were also all the times the Tar Heels failed to box out properly. Or when they didn’t hustle as much as they could have. Or when they made a mistake before a shot that turned into a turnover or a more difficult possession.
Roy Williams, the UNC coach, focused more on those things this week than he did on his team’s 34.5 percent shooting at Louisville, which was the fourth opponent in five games to hold the Tar Heels to less than 40 percent shooting. After that game the focus, predictably, was on the shooting slump.
Yet more is ailing the Tar Heels, who will hope on Saturday at Notre Dame to break a trend of incomplete games marred by miserable shooting. When Williams gathered with his players to study film on Wednesday, he focused less on shooting and more on other problems.
“I said yes we didn’t shoot the ball very well,” Williams said on Friday. “But if we would have done this better, we wouldn’t be talking about our shooting. If we would have done this better, we wouldn’t have been talking about (our shooting) – if we would have done this better.”
“So there were a lot of things that we showed them and it wasn’t just shooting the ball in the basket.”
Williams spoke of the defensive breakdowns that led to Louisville baskets. He spoke of those failures on box-outs, and the times the Tar Heels didn’t properly set screens.
We didn’t match their intensity. We didn’t match their attention to detail.
Roy Williams on Louisville game
Figuring out Louisville’s difficult match-up zone defense would have been challenging enough even had UNC played a clean game. And then the Tar Heels made it more difficult on themselves.
That has been their way recently. The defeat on Monday snapped a 12-game winning streak but even before it ended UNC’s execution hadn’t been as crisp, its play as sharp as it was earlier this season.
“I think the players understand it’s not just shooting the ball, because we had some major breakdowns, and we knew we were going to give a great effort from (Lousiville),” Williams said. “But we didn’t match their intensity. We didn’t match their attention to detail.”
The Tar Heels’ trip to Notre Dame, then, will provide some insight about how much they’ve learned from failure. It will provide some answers about their potential to turn hardship into growth.
UNC hasn’t had many such chances this season because it hasn’t often lost. The Tar Heels responded to a surprising November loss at Northern Iowa with four consecutive victories, including one at home against Maryland in which UNC played as well, overall, as it has all season.
Then, after losing on a buzzer-beater at Texas on Dec. 12, the Tar Heels won 12 consecutive games, some of them on talent alone. They couldn’t out-talent the Cardinals, though, who were the aggressors from the start.
“It all came down to the point that they had more effort at the end of the day,” Isaiah Hicks, the junior forward, said on Friday. “When it comes to our offensive rebounds, we gave up a lot of offensive rebounds.
“We look at that as either the effort to box out or the effort, the want-to, to get the defensive rebound.”
At times, Hicks acknowledged, the Tar Heels have had perhaps too much want-to when it comes to ending their shooting woes. Marcus Paige’s continued slump has been well-publicized but he hasn’t been the only one who has missed more shots than usual lately.
After that game at Louisville on Monday night, Williams said he wouldn’t be banning Paige to the bench – or to Siberia, for that matter. Williams used the same line on Friday about Joel Berry, the sophomore point guard who missed nine of his 10 shots against Louisville.
Williams said he hasn’t avoided the shooting woes with his players. He has discussed it with Paige.
“It’s like I said after the game, you know, you’ve got to fight through things and you’ve got to play basketball – there’s no sprinkle dust I can put on him or anything like that and he can’t do the same thing,” Williams said.
The same could be said, perhaps, of his team. Notre Dame is likely to offer the Tar Heels more of an opportunity to break out than Louisville did. The Cardinals are one of the best defensive teams in the nation while Notre Dame is among the worst, on a per-possession basis, in the ACC.
And yet that might not mean much if the Tar Heels don’t solve some of their own issues.
“We got our tails beat the last game,” Williams said. “If you don’t step up right now there’s something wrong with you. And so I fully expect it. We’ll even play at a higher level of intensity than we did on Monday night against Louisville, just because we got (it) handed to ourselves the last time.”