North Carolina Basketball: What's Gone Wrong for Roy Williams and Tar Heels?
Roy Williams put it bluntly in his folksy way last weekend after a loss to North Carolina State.
"We stunk," Williams told the News & Observer.
That stench wasn't exactly a one-game deal for the Tar Heels, who have equally as troubling losses this year.
The Heels are off to a reasonable 15-6 start and 4-3 in the ACC. Scratch that—reasonable for any other program, but not exactly at North Carolina.
What's more troubling than the record is how low some of the lows have been.
- On Nov. 27, UNC lost 83-59 at Indiana, the most lopsided loss of the Williams' era.
- On Dec. 15, UNC allowed East Carolina (East Carolina!) to score 61 points in a half, the most points allowed in a half in the Williams' era.
- On Jan. 6 and Jan. 10, UNC scored in the 50s in consecutive ACC games (both losses) for the first time in the Williams' era.
- Then last Saturday, the Heels trailed by as many as 28 and saw their 13-game winning streak against the Wolfpack snapped.
Noticing a trend here?
This is shaping up to be a historically down year in Chapel Hill, but three years ago it was a similar story. In 2010, UNC missed the NCAA Tournament and recovered the next season, winning the ACC and making it to the Elite Eight. That team got more of a pass because it followed a national champion.
Should this team get a pass for losing four players who were drafted in the top 17 of the NBA Draft? Or are there signs of trouble down the road in Chapel Hill?
Has Williams simply lost his touch?
The Talent is There—Sort of
The first year that the entire UNC roster was made up of players recruited by Williams was in 2006-07. Since that time, the 2010 team is the only one that did not include at least two players in the starting lineup that were top 10 recruits (according to Rivals.com's rankings).
This year is no different with James McAdoo (No. 8 in the 2011 class) and Reggie Bullock (No. 10 in the 2010 class). It's still fair to say, however, that the talent is down a tick.
Here are the average rankings of each UNC starting lineup since 2007 with the number of top 10 recruits in parentheses:
2006-07: 20.4 (four)
2007-08: 26.0 (three)
2008-09: 26.0 (three)
2009-10: 60.2 (zero)
2010-11: 21.2 (two)
2011-12: 16.4 (three)
2012-13: 45.2 (two)
This year comes with a caveat. Williams could field a lineup that would include P.J. Hairston (No. 13 in the 2011 class) instead of Desmond Hubert (No. 140 n the 2012 class) and that average ranking would bump up to 19.8.
If you want to get technical and say Hairston and Hubert don't play the same position, Hairston could replace Dexter Strickland (No. 34 in the 2009 class) and Brice Johnson (No. 49 in the 2012 class) could replace Hubert at the power forward spot, and that would give the Heels a 22.8 average ranking.
This brings us to what might be one of the problems for Williams this season. His substitution patterns and starting lineups are sort of head-scratchers.
Hairston is the third-leading scorer on the team at 12.4 points per game and makes 38.4 percent of his threes, but he's only started one game and averages 19.5 minutes. He plays behind Strickland, who shoots 20 percent from beyond the arc and averages 8.1 points per game.
It could go beyond talent, as Williams told the News & Observer he only played Hairston 17 minutes against NC State because he did not show the hustle he wanted.
Hubert starts over other higher-regarded players, but he only averages 12 minutes a contest.
In all, Williams has nine players on the roster who ranked in the top 70 in their respective classes, so it's not that he has missed out on top-rated talent.
Now, do the pieces fit?
The Heels Have Holes
Williams' style never changes no matter the personnel.
The Heels are going to play fast and they're going to run their secondary break. Traditionally, that has led to a lot of points.
This team is not playing any slower and averaging 79.1 points per game. That is above average for most programs but low for a Williams-coached team. It's obvious the Heels have had their issues scoring (see bullet points above).
This comes down to three identifiable deficiencies.
- Williams' best teams have had a dominant post player, which this team lacks.
- Williams' best teams have had a great point guard (Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson and Kendall Marshall). Freshman Marcus Paige isn't anywhere close to that level yet.
- Every one of Williams' UNC teams until this season has averaged better than 23 free-throw attempts per game. This team averages 18.2 attempts per game.
The first point is one that sounds a little ridiculous considering McAdoo, a power forward, is the team's leading scorer. But McAdoo does not live enough on the block to fit the bill.
Last season, for example, Tyler Zeller took 58 percent of his shots at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com. McAdoo is attempting only 34 percent of his shots at the rim. He's very efficient when he gets there, making 73 percent of those attempts, but he settles too often for jumpers.
According to the Hoop-Math.com data, 65 percent of McAdoo's shots are jumpers inside the three-point line and he knocks down only 31 percent of those shots.
This brings us to deficiency No. 2.
Williams' secondary break is built to manufacture a lot of layups. A great point guard like Marshall is able to get the ball out quickly up the court, and he was a big reason why last season the Heels, as a team, attempted 37 percent of their shots at the rim. This year that number is down to 29 percent.
Paige is also only the second starting point guard under Williams to have an assist rate less than 30 percent. His is 24.9 percent, meaning that he assists on 24.9 percent of the field goals made by his teammates when he's on the court.
The final deficiency could be a combination of No. 1 and No. 2, although McAdoo has done a good job of getting to the line.
The Heels' other best scorers are Bullock and Hairston, two players who spend a majority of the time on the perimeter. If McAdoo thrived more in the post or played next to a dominant post player, that might help.
As it is, Williams' roster has plenty of highly-recruited players, but it's missing some of the key ingredients that have made his past teams successful.
Will Williams Turn it Around Next Year?
It's hard to argue with Williams' consistency and ability to rebuild. Williams began his career as a head coach in the 1988-89 season when Kansas was on probation. Once the Jayhawks were eligible for the NCAA Tournament again in 1990, Williams never missed a tournament again in Lawrence.
When Williams arrived back in Chapel Hill as the head coach in 2003, he took a core that had a losing record in the ACC the year before he arrived to the NCAA Tournament the next season. And the year after that the Heels won the title.
Williams missed out on finding his point guard to replace Lawson in 2010 and that's a big reason why the Heels missed the 2010 tourney, but he righted that wrong the next year with Marshall.
This team still has a legitimate shot to make the tourney—ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi has the Heels as a No. 9 seed—but it's doubtful they'll go anywhere if they get there.
So what about next year?
Williams has signed what is currently ranked as Rivals' 10th-best class, led by forward Isaiah Hicks, who is ranked 14th. Hicks could be the replacement for McAdoo if he bolts for the NBA—NBADraft.net currently has him going 14th—or Hicks could slide in alongside McAdoo and give UNC what could be a more formidable front line.
The wild card is Andrew Wiggins, the top-ranked recruit in the 2013 class who has North Carolina in his final four. In 2010, Williams landed Harrison Barnes, and he played a big part in the turnaround. Land Wiggins and he could have a similar effect.
The key could be the development of Paige and whether he turns into another elite UNC point guard or is more Larry Drew than Marshall. Nate Britt, a point guard ranked 76th overall in his class, could end up being the solution. Williams has at least given himself some options.
So is 2013 simply the result of a rebuilding project that will take an extra year to form, or is it UNC on the decline?
History says Williams will get his program back on the right track. He has said he'll coach another six to 10 years (h/t Wilmington Star-News).
Folks in Chapel Hill better hope history is on their side.
All advanced stats used in this piece, unless otherwise noted, are from KenPom.com.
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