North Carolina Basketball: Are the Tar Heels Tough Enough?

Shawn KrestContributor IJanuary 17, 2013

North Carolina coach Roy Williams has not been pleased with his team's toughness
North Carolina coach Roy Williams has not been pleased with his team's toughnessUSA TODAY Sports

North Carolina trailed visiting Miami by one with 12 minutes and change remaining when Hurricanes forward Kenny Kadji got the ball outside the three-point line.

With one dribble, he got past freshman point guard Marcus Paige, who had been rocked seconds earlier by a Raphael Akpejiori screen. The big hit freed up Shane Larkin to drive to the basket and kick out, setting up the Kadji drive.

Kadji took a second dribble and sped past freshman J.P. Tokoto, who had also let Larkin enter the paint uncontested.

Like lion statues guarding a library entrance, veterans P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo stood flat-footed on either side of the paint as Kadji passed. Freshman big man Brice Johnson was boxed out by Akpejiori and was not a factor in the play.

Kadji dunked. The Hurricanes bench exploded in excitement, and Carolina was outscored by six the rest of the way.

“We are probably never going to play with the sense of urgency that I want to,” coach Roy Williams said in his postgame press conference. Of another play—a Miami three-pointer—he said, “There was a screen on the ball and Marcus and James Michael just stand there and they make a pass and they are still standing over there.”  

Fighting through screens on defense and setting and holding screens on offense are must-haves in the man’s game that is ACC conference play. Both have been woefully lacking from the Tar Heels this season.

After an early-season loss to Butler, Williams ripped his team’s toughness, telling The News & Observer's Luke DeCock, “They’d set a screen and we’d stop and start calling for mama.”

On an episode of ACC Live, former Tar Heel J.R. Reid broke down tape of the Virginia game, calling out Paige and Dexter Strickland for failing to get past the Cavaliers' screens.   

“We have to screen them the way that they screen us,” Strickland told Fox Sports Carolina's Andrew Jones after the game.

Reggie Bullock was even more blunt when asked to assess the team’s heart. 

question: "how much tougher does this UNC team need to be?" Reggie Bullock: "100% tougher than we are right now."

— Dijana Kunovac (@dijana_kunovac) January 7, 2013

After the back-to-back losses to open conference play, Carolina earned an important road win at Florida State, but some of the same problems remained.

There was Hairston taking the long way around a Terrance Shannon screen, running a button-hook on the baseline to avoid contact and freeing Ian Miller for an open shot. A minute later, Bullock hit Boris Bojanovsky and stuck there, allowing Michael Snaer to hit an uncontested three.

Even when pulling down offensive rebounds, Carolina appeared gun-shy. Off of a long carom from a Bullock miss, Shannon and Aaron Thomas overpowered Paige to tip the ball out, and Terry Whisnant sped past a loping McAdoo to reach the loose ball. He stepped out of bounds before bouncing it off McAdoo, however, giving possession back to the Heels.  

Carolina lost two-thirds of its scoring when three underclassmen starters—Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall—joined senior Tyler Zeller in the 2012 NBA draft. The Tar Heels should be making up for that lost talent through scrappiness and hunger. Instead, they’re showing a lack of appetite for contact.

There are four freshmen on Carolina’s roster, three of whom were on the court for Kadji’s backbreaking drive and dunk. They combined to take three steps on the play. The two veterans on the court combined to take two.

Someone, perhaps sophomore reserve Jackson Simmons, who set up at least three baskets with solid screens in the win over FSU, or fellow sophomore Desmond Hubert, who hit three Hurricanes on one possession that resulted in a McAdoo jumper, will need to show the young team what it takes to win in the ACC.

Otherwise, the Heels will spend March doing what they did on the Kadji play—watching from a distance.