UNC Basketball: What Is Going On In Chapel Hill?

Michael PeilaCorrespondent IJanuary 12, 2009

First of all, congratulations to Boston College for its stellar play against North Carolina, and to Wake Forest for showing why it remains undefeated. Both teams played smart, aggressive basketball against the Tar Heels, and deserved to have won. Now on to tougher matters.

What has happened to the former No. 1 team in the nation? That could be the question North Carolina coach Roy Williams is asking the official in the picture above.

With all the blue-chippers coming back, this was supposed to be a cakewalk to a National Championship, at least as the media led us to believe. Call off the season, they wrote, as the Tar Hells are a shoe-in in Detroit.

Some people really bought into the hype, and lots more jumped on the bandwagon. All these accolades came even though Bobby Frasor was coming off major ACL damage, Marcus Ginyard wouldn't be able to even jog until December, Ty Zeller gets hurt in the second game, and Tyler Hansbrough has shin problems. Yes, North Carolina breezed against lesser opponents and the Tar Heels showed what they were capable of against the likes of Michigan State and Notre Dame, yet something still wasn't quite right.

I for one never thought North Carolina was going to go undefeated, nor did I think the Tar Heels would breeze through the ACC schedule, as five other teams in the conference returned all five of their starters. Even though most of those teams are fairly young, they still have game experience to fall back on. 

Last night's game against the Demon Deacons wasn't a surprise to me, as North Carolina was on the road, and Wake Forest was hungry to show they were as good as advertised.  The game against Boston College was a shock, as I felt that the Tar Heels would play tougher and play smarter than in the previous three games, as this was their home and ACC opener.

Did Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson really buy into the team concept Williams was preaching, or are they trying to prove to the scouts that they are NBA lottery picks?  Where is the perimeter defense they both displayed early on in the season, and the good decision making? 

Is Hansbrough truly healthy, or is he not feeling 100 percent, as he has looked gassed in the last couple of games? Where has Deon Thompson disappeared to, and who is that imposter wearing No. 21? Bobby Frasor is having problems moving backwards trying to keep up with his man, and his shot selection has not been good. Ginyard is not in game shape, and no one knows how long—if ever this season— it will take him to get there, so don't count on him.

The Tar Heels have far more questions, it seems, than they have answers. Let's just take the first two ACC games they played. There was no team chemistry, and heaven forbid players should run plays on offense or play defense. 

Lawson has taken his fabulous 5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and nearly reversed it. He is barely shooting 30 percent from the floor, and still tries to take the game into his own hands. The Eagles' Tyrese Rice and Wake Forest's Jeff Teague have torn him apart, and the Nevada point guard took it to him throughout that game.

I also noticed that Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio had only one player assigned to rebound on North Carolina free throws, keeping the other players back on defense to stop the Tar Heels' primary and secondary breaks on misses. Smart move, as Lawson repeatedly played right into the Demon Deacons' hands by forcing his way into the lane and either missing or having his shot blocked. Lawson is playing like he did as a freshman, and making poor decisions.

Ellington has scored in double figures both games, but he has not shot well and has fallen in love with the three-point shot again. He needs to learn to create his own shot, drive to the basket, and also learn that making a 10- to 15-footer should be his first priority on offense. He also has not played good perimeter defense, as Teague also tore him apart consistently.

Thompson has gone soft and has been in foul trouble. Yet I feel that part of his problem has been that he has not gotten in deep enough position down low, and Lawson and Ellington have not looked for him either, instead choosing to shoot from the outside.

Hansbrough has not been getting the ball in good position for that same reason. North Carolina needs to start working the ball down low, or in high-low positions as teams have been playing zone, knowing that perimeter shooting has not been the Tar Heels' strength lately.

Now I am just a high school coach and have no designs on becoming a college coach, yet I am going to offer some suggestions to try to shake things up. Whether you agree with them or not, I feel something needs to happen.

  1. Bench Ellington, move Danny Green to shooting guard, and start Ed Davis. This gives North Carolina three legitimate big men down low. Green has shown—especially this season—that he is a better perimeter defender and a better outside shooter than Ellington. This will also provide an offensive spark off the bench, as Frasor has shown he can't score and maybe it will light a fire under Ellington.
  2. Play Will Graves more, as he has shown that he is not afraid to go to the hoop and play some tough defense. He is big and strong enough to battle down low, is quick enough to guard on the perimeter, and causes match-up problems for the defense.
  3. Lawson needs to make better decisions handling the ball, and if the shot or drive is not there, bring it out. He needs to stop forcing the ball, as his shot selection for the last two games has been atrocious. Also, instead of thinking that he needs to prove himself—like he did at one point, going toe-to-toe with Teague—he should just play smart defense, keeping his opponent in front of him. There is a difference between being quick and being fast. Lawson has shown he is fast, by all means, but Rice and Teague are quick and Lawson needs to adjust to players like that. I can't remember how many times Teague left Lawson and Ellington standing there hanging on to their jock straps as he crossed over or juked his way to the basket. If Lawson can't adjust, then give Larry Drew II more playing time, as he is a better defender and moves better laterally on defense.
  4. If having the three big men starting isn't appealing, then start Ed Davis instead of Thompson, as Davis is longer, a better rebounder and defender, and can score at least the six points per game that Thompson averages. Plus, that will open things up more for Hansbrough.
  5. If North Carolina cannot defend man-to-man on the perimeter adequately, then play a match-up zone sometimes. Playing a zone is not a bad ploy, as teams have lit up the Tar Heels consistently, as North Carolina has proved it cannot get around picks properly over the last four games.
  6. Instead of running down and jacking up three's five to 10 seconds into the shot clock, pass the ball around and run the offense. I am sure the Tar Heels have one, as I have seen the "JV" players go in and run it very well at the end of blowouts. As much as I like seeing North Carolina put up 100 points on a team, I would rather see them score 70-80, playing good defense and taking good shots. A win is a win, no matter how low the score is.
  7. Look down low first, and then work it out. Hansbrough is not getting enough looks or touches. Also, I know that Hansbrough has developed a nice mid-range game, but whoever told him he was a 3-point shooter should be castrated. Don't let him shoot beyond 15 feet, as that is not his game. He took two 3-pointers that were horrible, and the second one just about killed any opportunity for a comeback win.

As a North Carolina fan, last night I gave thanks for offensive rebounding and Danny Green—the only things that kept the Tar Heels alive. Of course, if you are getting a lot of offensive rebounds, then you are missing a lot of shots, so they need to convert more consistently. Green played his best all-around game to date and even shut down Teague when given the chance.

It just seems that some players have been playing for themselves instead of being part of the team. There is no reason with the talent, experience, and depth that North Carolina has that the Tar Heels shouldn't still be undefeated or have at least one loss—the one last night. I do not mind seeing them lose, as long as they lose while playing smart and being competitive.

Can North Carolina turn it around? I believe they can, as Williams is a great coach and will not tolerate what has been going on. Can the Tar Heels win the ACC? Possibly, but starting 0-2 will not help them, as other teams like Duke and Wake Forest are playing hot right now. Can they get a No. 1-seed, and make it to the Final Four? Yes, they can, as the season is only half over. But they better start playing like they can, and playing like they want it.

Right now, taking it "one game at a time," is a good philosophy. I know that this team has been compared to the 2005 squad, but that team was smarter, more disciplined, hungrier, and improved as the season went along. Yes, they hit a few snags playing poorly, but they responded by playing better the next game and learning from their mistakes. Come on Roy, put this thing right.