The Real Problems with North Carolina
Tuesday night’s home loss to NC State brought forth the usual deluge of cliched and shortsighted explanations that inevitably emerge whenever the Tar Heels struggle on the hardwood — heart, “sense of urgency”, recruiting misses, “Roy’s lost it”, uncalled timeouts, “our players are too nice”, team chemistry, etc.
While there may be kernels of truth to those explanations, all of them are far too generalized and lack the nuance necessary to diagnose the real issues with North Carolina.
To be sure there are significant issues with this year’s Tar Heel basketball team. In most years under Roy Williams this is the time of the season that the Heels kick into another gear. It’s when one player emerges as the team’s star, and when Tar Heel fans start fantasizing about a March run to NCAA Title #6. Instead, the 2014-2015 Heels are dropping the games they usually drop in January.
So why has Carolina backslid over the past month? As you may expect, the explanation is multifactorial.
1) Marcus Paige’s Regression
It’s hard not to start with Marcus Paige. Last season Paige was outerworldly, elevating a significantly flawed team to a top four finish in ACC play. It wasn’t really fair to expect Paige to match or exceed that level of play this year — except that’s exactly what we did. Regardless, Paige has been somewhat of a disappointment. It’s hard to grasp the exact cause of Paige’s struggles — injuries, face-guarding defenses, lack of a shooting 2 guard (Leslie McDonald wasn’t a lights out shooter, but teams weren’t willing to leave him wide open), and the mental challenge of being the team’s go-to scorer in addition to being a facilitator all likely have played a role. Part of it isn’t really Paige’s fault — whether by their fault or Roy’s offensive system, teammates are not setting nearly enough on ball screens for Paige on offense. What’s more, while Paige is a skilled passer and talented ball-handler, he doesn’t push pace on the break off the dribble like Lawson and Felton or how Kendall Marshall did by passing ahead.
Don’t get it twisted. Paige is still the best player on the team and exactly the type of figurehead the Tar Heels need with the cloud of the NCAA scandal still lingering overhead. But fair or not, he hasn’t been the superstar he was for the Heels last year.
2) JP Tokoto’s Half Court Game
While Paige remains the team’s best player, there’s a case to be made that the Tar Heels tend to go as JP Tokoto goes. Tokoto has continually improved every season and is one of the best non-point guard passers in the ACC. However, Tokoto is at his best when the Heels are out and running in an uptempo game. When teams slow down the pace and force the Tar Heels to play in the half court Tokoto has had a harder time making an impact. While his shooting has improved on a yearly basis, he isn’t a threat to consistently knock down open three pointers, thus allowing his defenders to shade into the post to double team the Tar Heel big men. While his passing and vision remain assets in the halfcourt, packed in defenses help neutralize the threat of Tokoto taking the ball to the rim. To improve Carolina’s halfcourt execution, Tokoto needs to either start consistently hitting wide open threes or be more aggressive getting to the rim off the dribble. To the latter point, it would be nice to see North Carolina utilize Tokoto in more pick and roll sets with their bigs to take advantage of Tokoto’s passing ability.
3) Big Men with Limitations
Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson have by and large been great this season and the Tar Heels have been at their best when their frontcourt is dominating the game. But both Meeks and Johnson still have inherent limitations that can lead to the struggles they experienced against big, physical frontcourts like NC State’s. Johnson can be unstoppable if within 8-10 feet of the basket due to his lightning-quick release, but still has difficulty establishing deep post position against more physical defenders. Meeks is much more explosive than last season but still struggles against long-armed shot blockers who sit on his pump fakes in the post. Isaiah Hicks has a little more ability than either to make plays off the dribble and play strong inside, but still seems a year away from becoming a consistent force in the paint.
4) Lack of dependable outside shooters not named Marcus Paige
This one is pretty straightforward. Tokoto, Jackson, Berry, Britt and Pinson have all occasionally knocked down outside shots from time to time, but no one player has emerged as a reliable shooter on a game to game basis. Jackson, Britt and Berry all seem like capable shooters whose biggest issue may be confidence. If one or two could have an Aaron Harrison-esque stretch of shooting in March the team could elevate to another level. Until that happens the team remains painfully limited from the perimeter.
When you factor all of these things together, it isn’t hard to come up with a blueprint to limit North Carolina’s effectiveness — pack in the defense and double team UNC’s bigs, play physical in the post, face guard Marcus Paige, sag off other players on the perimeter, and slow tempo to limit possessions. Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Part of the reason Carolina doesn’t carry any “bad losses” on their resume is that only teams with the right personnel can effectively implement this strategy. NC State has a deep rotation of big men to throw at UNC’s frontcourt and athletic guards who are capable of harassing Marcus Paige for an entire game. As such, North Carolina’s ability to make a run in the ACC or NCAA tournament will be heavily dependent on matchups.
Photo Courtesy of Spencer Herlong (@TarHeelPhoto, spencerfoto.com)