I know. That headline makes me sick to my stomach, too.
Fortunately, there are things that can be done to prevent the early dismissal from the NCAA tournament. If the fixable problems can't be addressed, however, I'm afraid it's going to be a sad March for the folks in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina is loaded with what many claim is the best front-court talent in the country. This is also taking into account James Michael McAdoo coming off the bench, whom has yet to show why he is being touted an NBA first-rounder. They also boast one of the best point guards in the country, in Kendall Marshall, but even he can stand to get better.
Championships are not won with speculated talent.
The Tar Heels (20-4, 7-2 ACC) will face one of the nation's top defenses today, in the Virginia Cavaliers (19-4, 6-3 ACC).
With only seven games remaining on the schedule, North Carolina must find a way to combat their deficiencies, starting today.
Every team has injuries. Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, their perimeter game is sitting in street clothes behind the bench. This is the most painful of their deficiencies—the only broken piece that cannot be mended.
Leslie McDonald was redshirted after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery before the season. He was contributing 15.7 minutes per game and was the best perimeter shooter, knocking down 38 percent of his shots beyond the arc.
P.J. Hairston will be out of the lineup for today's matchup with the Virginia Cavaliers. He is suffering from a sore foot and has been seen wearing a boot. He was also absent with a wrist injury in their 73-72 loss to Kentucky on December 3.
Hairston's play has been suspect of late, but he is who Roy Williams is counting on to make up for the loss of McDonald. Hairston is only shooting 32 percent from the field and he is missing precious time to get out of his slump. He has only made six of his 34 three-point attempts, since the start of conference play.
The biggest loss came on January 19, against Virginia Tech, when Dexter Strickland tore his right anterior cruciate ligament and damaged his meniscus. He had started 19 games and was fifth on the team in minutes and scoring. This team misses his aggressiveness and leadership. They also miss his perimeter defense—probably more than anything else.
Dexter Strickland underwent surgery on Thursday, so keep your fingers crossed for next season.
In the last three games, North Carolina's bench has accumulated a grand total of 15 points. That is not a typo, you didn't read it wrong, and, no, it is not an average.
James Michael McAdoo was the only player to score off the bench in their loss to Duke. As a matter of fact, he is responsible for 13 of the 15 points. The other two points belong to the injured P.J. Hairston.
As highly touted as James Michael McAdoo is, he is going to have to start providing UNC with quality minutes. He only played 12 minutes against Duke, while the starters averaged 35 minutes between them—Kendall Marshall was on the court for 38 of the 40 minutes.
A lot of North Carolina's bench scoring woes can be written off to injuries, but Roy Williams has to find a way to get production from his bench. Depth is a necessity if the Tar Heels are shooting for another national title.
As I stated before, perimeter defense has been hurt by the loss of Dexter Strickland. He was easily the best defender on the perimeter and I'm having trouble finding who can step in and pick up the slack. Best of luck to Roy, on this one.
The Duke Blue Devils attempted 36 shots from beyond the arc and drained 14 of them—the 36th attempt by Austin Rivers served as the nail in the coffin. Sadly, I knew he would knock it down if he was given space, given his lights-out performance up to that point. Rivers finished the game 6 for 10 from three-point range.
Zeller gave him all the real estate he needed and didn't even bother getting his hands up until Rivers was already in his shooting motion. If Zeller presses Rivers, he can't take that shot and has to settle for a drive to the basket. Chances are he takes a tougher shot and even if he makes it, it's only a tie and the Tar Heels have a chance to make up for blowing the lead, in overtime.
The Tar Heels must do a better job of defending the perimeter down the road.
Reggie Bullock, are you out there?
The team needs some help knocking down three-pointers and he is the one that needs to provide the assistance. Bullock has knocked down 39 percent of his three-pointers this year. In the big games, UNC desperately needs him to be a factor.
It would be tough to blame Bullock for the loss to Duke. In 34 minutes, he was 2-3 from the field and 0-1 from three-point range. Somebody needs to feed this man the rock. I'm looking at you, Marshall.
It also wouldn't hurt to see Harrison Barnes take more three-pointers, either. He is third on the team, in attempts, and has buried 43 percent of his shots from that range. I like seeing him work in the post, and I hope that continues, but I would also like to see him put up a few more three-pointers.
UNC attempted just six three-pointers versus Duke and Harrison Barnes was the only Tar Heel to sink one in.
The championship teams of '04-05 and '08-09 shot 40 percent and 39 percent, respectively, from beyond the arc. This year's team is shooting just 35 percent from that range.
Kendall Marshall has all the ball-handling skills a point guard could ever need. His court vision is second-to-none, especially in the open floor.
My only issue with Marshall is his lack of aggression. He really needs to start getting in the lane more to facilitate the perimeter game. He has the skill-set to do it, but, for whatever reason, he just doesn't.
Think about some of North Carolina's past point guards. Jeff McInnis and Ed Cota abused teams with the floater in the lane, while Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton used their quickness to get to the basket.
Lawson and Felton also had an outside game to fear, which also helped them get to the basket with ease. In their championship seasons, Ty Lawson was dropping 47 percent of his three-pointers and Raymond Felton sank 44 percent of his attempts beyond the arc.
The point guard has to make opposing teams fear his scoring ability. I don't know if Kendall Marshall can ever develop the 3-point game of Felton and Lawson. As of today, he has only made 31 percent of his attempted 3-pointers this year.
What Kendall Marshall can do, without question, is drive to the basket and open up perimeter shots for the likes of Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock.
Few things will make coaches and fans more upset than a missed freebie.
The '04-05 and '08-09 teams capitalized on their opportunities, making 72 percent and 75 percent of their free throws respectively. I hate to keep comparing the teams, but those teams did everything a championship team must do.
If this team wants to cut down the net in March, they will have to make more than 65 percent of their free throws.
The Tar Heels were shooting fairly well from the charity stripe for the first 36 minutes and 25 seconds of the Duke game. In the last 3:35, however, Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller combined to go 3-of-6 from the free throw line.
North Carolina finished the game, knocking down 70 percent of the free throws as a team. This is somewhat positive, but they have to find a way to get it in the basket down stretch.
Nothing will bury a team faster than a lack of mental toughness. In that final 3:35 I spoke of, mental errors went beyond just the free throw line. Both Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes turned the ball over, in that span.
Tyler Zeller probably had the worst 44 seconds of his life, missing two free throws, knocking a Duke miss into their own basket, and then failing to properly defend Austin Rivers on his game-winning 3-pointer.
We have seen spouts of mental toughness from this team. Last year, we saw the Tar Heels come out with wins in tough ACC Tournament play, versus Miami and Clemson, just to have it followed up by a 75-58 loss to Duke.
The same can be said of the NCAA Tournament, when they made it all the way to the Elite Eight and lost to Kentucky in the final minutes. Facing just a 1-point deficit, UNC was unable to score in the final 1:52, as the Kentucky Wildcats sent the Tar Heels packing with a 76-69 victory.
All the talent in the world will never overcome a lack of mental toughness.
North Carolina can make up for most of it's deficiencies with it's front court prowess and the pace in which they play. The problem is, if an opponent can hang in there for 38 minutes and not let the Heels run away with the game, lack of mental toughness becomes North Carolina's greatest nemesis—and may cause an early exit from the NCAA Tournament.