I’m begging you to try something just one time. Carolina is 16-7 and 6-4 in the ACC, and smack in the middle of a stretch that’s going to determine its postseason fate. I’m not sure if you’ve looked at a box score, or watched game tape all season, but it’s obvious to me and most die-hard UNC fans that several things have to change for this team to play at its best.
With a trip to Duke coming up Wednesday, there’s no more time to wait. I can’t bear to watch a 30-point beat-down at Cameron, so this is what you need to do to give your team the best chance to win from here on out.
Make P.J. Hairston the go-to guy. Starting games with your best player on the bench is putting this team in a hole nearly every time they take the court. I don’t know what P.J. has done to make you hate him so much, but please just give this a try. Play him 35 minutes or more, and let him play without the fear that you’ll pull him out for any mistake he makes. Watch him develop into the fearless leader for this team, and watch as his shooting percentage rises.
Hairston is the most confident, aggressive, talented player on this team, and he has to be on the court as much as possible. Saying you didn’t play him because he wasn’t hustling is garbage. He plays harder than anyone else out there. Just face it, you’re treating him unfairly.
Next, start Brice Johnson at center. While Johnson is clearly no Tyler Zeller, he’s the only big man who has the skill set to fill the center’s role in your system. He can run the court, catch on the move and put the ball on the floor a few times, and finish strong at the rim. He can also hit the mid-range jumper, post up and contest shots. He isn’t polished yet, but he’s far and away the best option you have.
Brice Johnson plays with great energy, intensity and toughness, and despite his slim frame he’s the best rebounder on this team. Joel James and Desmond Hubert aren’t ready for Division I basketball yet, and you’re doing a disservice to the rest of the team by putting them in there.
The result of these two major mistakes is obvious. How many more times do you want to spot the opponent a substantial lead right out of the gate? In the last five games, Carolina has fallen way behind in all but one before the first TV timeout. N.C. State jumped out to a 6-0 lead and led 15-7 at the first TV timeout. Boston College led 8-2 at the first stoppage, Virginia Tech 12-0, and Miami 9-2 before eventually extending the lead to 13-2. The home game against Wake Forest was the only exception, as the Heels took a 6-4 lead to the first TV timeout. These deficits are a direct result of your botched lineup to start the game.
In addition to the starting debacle, your substitution patterns are also holding this team back. You have to leave guys out there long enough to get some rhythm, and that’s impossible to do when you’re making changes every minute or so. Let some mistakes go. Correct them at the next timeout or in the film session following the game, but don’t pull players out every time they do something you don’t like. When you make players feel like they’re on such a short leash, the result is tentative play. Playing scared never works out well.
Trim the rotation down to nine guys. You can’t please everyone and have the team be at its best, so playing time has to be decided by quality of play on the court. This will involve cutting minutes from guys you have clearly pegged as your favorites, but it has to be done. Dexter Strickland is best used as a spark plug off the bench, playing somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 minutes and attacking with all his energy when he’s in there. J.P. Tokoto has too much ability to spend the entire game on the bench, and you have to find more time for him. He’s one of the toughest players on a team in desperate need of some physicality.
A three-game win streak had many fans breathing easier, but by no means is Carolina a safe bet for the NCAA tournament. That stretch came against what are likely the three worst teams in the ACC, with two of those games at home. Miami is the best team in the league, and today they did a great job of exposing Carolina's biggest weaknesses. The schedule doesn’t get easier from here, and there’s not much room for error. Swallow your pride and make the changes. You can still save the season.