Slow ACC start no reason for UNC to panic

A 1-2 ACC start is no reason to panic.

North Carolina has started 1-2 (or 0-3) five other times in coach Roy Williams’ 15-year tenure. Four of those seasons ended with a trip to the NCAA tournament and one, in 2009, with a national championship.

So the last thing UNC, which has lost three of its past give games, needs to do after a 61-49 loss at Virginia on Saturday is panic.

“It’s a long season,” senior Theo Pinson said. “We have to stay together. You go through ups and downs but this can only make us better.”

Given both of the ACC losses were on the road, and against two of the better teams in the league (Virginia and Florida State, a pair of top-25 KenPom.com teams), should lessen the anxiety as well.

Senior guard Joel Berry believes there is a relatively easy way for the Tar Heels (12-4 overall) to look better than they have in the first three ACC games.

“We just need some more guys to give effort,” Berry said after the UVa loss. “That’s the biggest thing right now — Xs and Os, all that stuff, you can take care of that. Playing hard and giving intensity and knowing that each and every play is important, that’s what we’ve got to get guys to understand.”

Max effort does go a long way. Williams has also lamented his team’s effort — notably after the Wofford loss, Wake Forest win and Florida State loss — but there’s more to the Tar Heels’ slow ACC start.

Two causes for concern:

Helping Berry

Berry, as UNC’s best player, should drive the bus but the offense has devolved into a lot of Berry doing (20.6 points per game the past five games) and everyone else watching.

Junior forward Luke Maye and wing Cam Johnson are the two most logical choices to support Berry. The issue for the Tar Heels is they didn’t have Johnson, a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh, for the first 11 games of the season.

So they had to figure out how to play without Johnson, a lanky, sharp-shooting wing who averaged 11.9 points for the Panthers last season. They went 10-1 in the first 11 games and have gone 2-3 since his return.

Johnson, who has averaged 9.4 points in 23.2 minutes off the bench, is not the problem, per se. It’s the challenge of figuring out how the pieces fit together after the team had found a different groove to start the season.

Maye has been impacted the most by the return of Johnson. In a traditional role of the primary big (ie Tyler Hansbrough, Brice Johnson, Sean May) in Williams’ offense, Maye thrived in the first 11 games. He was the top scorer six times, averaged 19.5 points and made 56.5 percent (87 of 154) of his shots.

In the past five games, Maye has averaged 12.6 points and made only 33.3 percent (22 of 66) of his shots.

The competition was relatively easier in those early games than the past five. The average KenPom ranking of the first 11 opponents was 113, compared to 60 for the past five.

In the bigger picture, UNC’s strength the past two seasons — when it won the national title (2017) and reached the national title game (2016) — was roster continuity (even with some key injuries).

While Duke and Kentucky are used to turning over their rosters annually, and the inherent challenges that accompany such a strategy, UNC has enjoyed the luxury of keeping a core together.

Johnson, while an older, proven ACC player, is still a new addition. Throw in a knee injury, which cost Johnson important practice time, and you can understand the adjustment. Once Johnson and Maye figure out how to divvy up shots and help Berry, the Heels will look a lot different (and win more games).

Finding an identity

This roster doesn’t exactly fit the traditional style Williams prefers to play with two bigs and three guards.

Freshman forwards Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley combined for 12 points in 59 minutes in the losses to UVa and FSU. Maye, a reserve who averaged 5.5 points per game last season, has also struggled against better competition.

In four games against teams ranked in KenPom’s top 25, Maye has averaged 10.7 points and shot 35.3 percent. In the other 12 games, Maye has averaged 19.5 points and shot 53.8 percent.

The trio of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Bradley averaged a combined 29.4 points over 18 ACC games last season. Maye, Brooks and Manley have averaged a combined 18.9 points in the first three ACC games.

“It’s a different team than what we’re used to seeing, what everybody else is used to seeing,” Berry said.

“It’s a little different than when you get more of an overload from your guards than when we used to be able to just throw the ball down low and knowing that we had some guys that could make play. I’m not saying our guys can’t make a play from the post but it’s a little different from the past few years.”

Williams has adjusted before, notably during the 2012-13 season when he turned on to guard P.J. Hairston in a “small ball” lineup. That team also started 1-2 in ACC play but finished 12-6, reached the ACC championship game and the second round of the NCAA tournament.

With Maye, Johnson and Pinson, Williams has experimented with a smaller lineup in spurts since Johnson’s return. In Saturday’s loss at UVa, Williams even used Pinson at the “5” or center spot, for more than 5 minutes in the second half.

“I went five small guys there to just to see if I could do something,” Williams said.

Williams said he will continue to tinker but don’t expect wholesale changes.

“It has a worked for at least a couple of weeks out of 30 years, so we’ve got to do a better job of our execution,” Williams said.

The sooner the Heels figure out how they want to, and can play, the sooner they’ll be back on track.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio