North Carolina Basketball: Blueprint for Tar Heels to Return to AP Top 25

Rollin YeattsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2013

North Carolina Basketball: Blueprint for Tar Heels to Return to AP Top 25

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    North Carolina basketball has a long, rocky path ahead.

    The team is sporting a disappointing 11-5 record, and the toughest ACC games on the schedule have yet to be played. In addition to that, no team in the AP Top 25 has lost more than two games this season.

    That won't be easy for UNC to overcome.

    But with the victory over FSU being a possible turning point for the Tar Heels' season, anything could happen from here. With Saturday's win as a guide, the blueprint for the Tar Heels' return to the AP Top 25 is easy to trace.

    The individual talent of the players has been evident, but the idea of team play has been lost in the shuffle of rotations and youthful mistakes.

    The winning formula will always be found in effort and team play, and this young team seems to be slowly grasping the concept. That is what this blueprint is all about.

    Once this team learns to play in harmony at all times, the sky is the limit for this young—but talented—group of Tar Heels.

Play with Fire

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    From here on out, every game should be played with the intensity of a single-elimination tournament.

    Too often, the Tar Heels have been caught napping on loose balls. Jogging to the ball and swiping at it isn't enough. Sometimes players have to get dirty, and that means diving on the floor like it's their last chance at getting a possession.

    That shouldn't just happen at the beginning, middle or the end of the game. Those plays should be seen throughout the game, whether UNC is down by 20, up by 20, winded, weak or sore.

    There is never an excuse to give less than 100 percent every second a player is on the floor.

    It doesn't stop with loose balls, though. The fire must continue to burn in every facet of the game.

    If a player is anywhere near a potential rebound, he has to leave his feet. No more standing there and watching it go overhead. He needs to get off the floor and try to at least get a hand on it.

    What could have been an easy rebound for the opponent becomes a 50-50 ball.

    The Tar Heels also need to hustle in transition defense at every opportunity. P.J. Hairston and Marcus Paige were the best examples of that against FSU.

    When it looked like a Seminole had an easy transition bucket, Paige poked the ball out, and Hairston had a tremendous block on another play.

    Finally, the team's intensity must carry over to physicality. The Tar Heels have been extremely soft at times, and that's something that has to change to match the physical nature of the ACC.

    With a wealth of athletes and superior leapers, there is no reason for these guys not to dunk in traffic—or even in open space, for that matter.

    The Tar Heels should be slamming it home with every opportunity. P.J. Hairston, James Michael McAdoo, J.P. Tokoto and Brice Johnson should be dunking on people. Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald should be dunking in the open floor instead of just laying it in.

    When a player has the ability to dunk, that's exactly what he should do.

    At home, it sparks the crowd. Away from home, it shuts them up.

    Never underestimate the power of intensity.

Play Team Ball

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    No matter the NBA draft status of individuals, the team has to function as one cohesive unit in order to be successful.

    That is another area this Carolina squad seems to have trouble with, but it's tough to argue with its team play against FSU. The guys were moving, they rotated the ball and they kept getting it to the hot hand.

    The hot hand was Hairston, and he managed to take one shot for every two minutes of action on Saturday. When the Tar Heels were struggling, they would get him the ball, and he would find a way to score, whether it was a thunderous dunk or burying a trey.

    The next game, it could be Bullock, McAdoo, Johnson or Hairston again. Whoever it is, the guys need to sense the heat and get that player the rock.

    Sometimes open looks aren't easy to find, which is why it is so important to keep not only the ball moving but all five bodies too. The idea is to get the defense out of position and make it pay.

    If players aren't moving around with purpose and intention to get open, the offense locks up like an engine without oil.

    On-court camaraderie is also an essential part of the team game. Simple things like giving props for a nice dish, talking on defense and huddling up before free throws can go a long way in building a team's character and chemistry.

    Just as we could not exist without chemistry in nature, a team will never be truly successful without it.

Play Smart Defense

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    Of all the concepts laid out in this blueprint for success, the hardest one for this team to grasp may be on the defensive end.

    It must play smart and not allow the easy looks that have continually put UNC in a hole.

    It's easy to blame the youth of the team for not fully grasping the concept of Roy Williams' hedge-and-recover scheme. But it isn't just the freshmen making mistakes; it is also the veterans.

    There should never be more than two Tar Heels defending a player at one time. Traps aside, defenders shouldn't hedge the ball-handler for longer than one second.

    The scheme is meant to block off driving and passing lanes rather than making it a double-team situation.

    Whether it is due to a lack of experience, communication or mental lapses by vets, the Tar Heels have been buried by the three ball. Fortunately, they were able to make up for that against Florida State with hustle plays and rebounds.

    They may not be so lucky the next time.

    The Tar Heels must learn to be vocal about screens being set by the offense and who needs to make the switch. Something so simple will go a long way in avoiding mental mistakes.

    UNC has a bad reputation for being a porous defense, but it isn't due to a lack of individual talent. There are a lot of great defenders and impressive athletes within this unit.

    It all comes back to putting it together as a team.

    If the Tar Heels continue to get busted by the three, Roy Williams may have to finally break from his norm. The solution could be as simple as moving to a true man-to-man scheme, where switching on screens will be the only concern.

    Somehow, this defense has to come together to have success.

Roy Must Settle on a Lineup and Rotation

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    It all comes down to the choices of the man on the sideline.

    For far too long, the center position has been in constant rotation. At some point soon, Roy Williams must decide who will start and who will get the bulk of the minutes.

    Playing in two- to five-minute spans isn't good for the young centers trying to learn. It also hinders the development of team chemistry with its center.

    For much of the season, it has been between Desmond Hubert, Brice Johnson and Joel James. But with Jackson Simmons' performance at center against FSU, there may be one more name to add to that group.

    It won't be an easy decision to make by any means, but it is a decision that must be made—and soon.

    Though Roy has yet to question the starting role of Dexter Strickland at shooting guard, the consensus of fans seems to point in the direction of P.J. Hairston.

    Strickland is the lone senior on the squad, which is the most likely reason for his spot in the starting lineup. So far this season, Hairston has appeared to be an equal—if not better—defender than Strickland.

    Hairston is also the better jump shooter, free-throw shooter, rebounder and blocker—not to mention the bigger body. Hairston has roughly three inches and 40 pounds on Strickland.

    The choice is pretty clear to most, but, for the time being, Roy is sticking with Dex.

    That's fine if the Tar Heels get out to strong starts and Hairston plays more minutes than Strickland, as it went down against FSU. But if the Tar Heels continue to struggle in the first few minutes, questions about Roy's decision will hover over him like an ugly gray cloud.

    The guys he chooses to play the most may end up being the greatest factor in how this season pans out.