North Carolina Basketball: 10 Things We Learned from the Loss to Duke
Nobody wearing North Carolina's shade of blue will tell you a 73-68 loss to Duke was in any way a moral victory. Even more disappointing than the loss itself was that the Tar Heels had a legitimate shot to take this one away from the Blue Devils.
But the 10 things we learned about UNC in this loss were not all negative. There were quite a few positives to take from a game that many across the nation thought would be a blowout.
UNC fought hard in the opening half, and the effort the players put forth should be commended. Unfortunately, bad habits are hard to break, and the Tar Heels would eventually succumb to their usual ways.
If you feel I missed anything, please refer to "North Carolina Basketball: 10 Things We Learned from the Loss to Miami." I'm sure you'll find what you're looking for there.
Roy Williams Is Willing to Adapt
There is no doubt Tar Heel Nation has been frustrated with Roy Williams for being—well—stubborn. There aren't many other words to truly define the mysteries of P.J. Hairston not starting and the rotational merry-go-round.
But when the Tar Heels took the floor at Cameron Indoor, Ol' Roy had a surprise waiting for us: Hairston actually started—and it wasn't due to injury.
Joel James wasn't able to play after being diagnosed with a concussion he had apparently been dealing with since playing Wake Forest a week ago. And since he was the most likely candidate to bang with Mason Plumlee, that threw a little kink in the plans.
Instead of starting Desmond Hubert at center, Coach Williams elected to go small with James Michael McAdoo taking the center spot. That left an opening to fit in Hairston, who is capable of playing the 2, 3 and 4 positions.
But the adaptations didn't stop with the opening lineup; he also rotated guys in less frequently. For the first time this season, all the starters played over 30 minutes and Leslie McDonald provided 20 minutes as the sixth man.
No other Tar Heel played more than four minutes.
But before we get our hopes up, thinking this is the new-look North Carolina, Roy did provide a counter-punch in the postgame press conference (h/t Inside Carolina):
I was trying to win the dadgum game. I don’t make decisions about how many minutes a guy’s going to play. I’m going to play the guys that I want at that specific time. We may play five guys 40 minutes on Saturday. I may be back playing 12 guys in the first half.
While change in Chapel Hill remains an uncertainty, at least we found out that Roy Williams is capable of adapting.
There Is No Reason for Hairston to Ever Start the Game on the Bench
OK, so we already knew there was no good reason for Hairston to start the game on the bench. This is nothing new. But he did prove how baffling Roy's strategy has been, and he validated our whining with more than just offense.
Hairston didn't have one of his better shooting nights, as he was only 1-of-7 from three-point range. However, when he wasn't jacking up treys, he was relentlessly attacking the defense off the bounce—and playing incredible defense on the other end.
Not only was he the game's top scorer with 23 points on the night, he may have had the best defensive performance of anyone on the floor, too.
Hairston finished with two incredible blocks (another game-high stat), one steal and he drew two charges. An even more impressive feat may have been his seven offensive rebounds, including an authoritative slam to clean up McDonald's missed three.
Add in another three assists (team-high) and a defensive rebound, and it's pretty plain to see who the best player on the court was—at least in Carolina blue.
I welcome any input as to why this man shouldn't start every game.
Roy offered up more notable quotes about the situation during the postgame, showing obvious frustration for those of us that have been questioning his strategy.
"It’s popular to say who the hell is supposed to be in the lineup when you don’t know what in the dickens you’re talking about," Coach Williams said. A little later he went on to say, "One of the ways we’ve been struggling is scoring and so putting P.J. in there gives us another scorer in the lineup."
Um, how do I put this, Coach?
That's what the dickens we have been saying!
James Michael McAdoo Can Play the Center Position
James Michael McAdoo did an incredible job defending ACC POY candidate Mason Plumlee in the first half. He fell off a little in the second, but he did prove he is more than capable of playing the position on both sides of the floor.
Behind some stellar one-on-one defense in the post, McAdoo held Plumlee to just 3-of-8 shooting and helped to force Duke's big man into four turnovers and a charge.
In the second half, McAdoo didn't get those charges, even though he was put on the floor with a lowered shoulder and a flying butt punch. His only real miscue to speak of was when Plumlee blew by him from about 17 feet out.
That was a little mystifying.
Plumlee also started dropping the hook shot on him, but anyone that watched Tyler Zeller go to work knows how hard that shot is to defend. Overall, it was a positive performance on the defensive end from McAdoo, despite Plumlee's 18 points.
I'll take that over the 30 points he put up against NC State last week.
On the other end, McAdoo seemed to be more active and efficient playing closer to the basket. There are few centers in this league that can handle his quickness off the bounce, and Plumlee was no exception—as evidenced by McAdoo's reverse dunk along the baseline.
His close proximity to the basket also made him more effective on the offensive glass, as he snatched up four boards on that end.
By no means is this an indication that his basketball future is at the 5. But with the pieces Roy has to work with and McAdoo's inconsistency with jumpers, the team may be better off with him taking over the duties at center.
Smaller Is Better
I wasn't fully on board with the idea of going small when Roy Williams was testing the strategy earlier this season. Being the short guy that I am, I'm always looking for a reason to use the phrase "smaller is better," and for at least one night, that theory was vindicated.
Going small put the most active players on the roster on the floor at the same time, and that proved to be crucial in forcing three turnovers in Duke's first three possessions.
Most importantly, though, was the fact that it put the group I have nicknamed the Triangle Trio together on the floor for most of the game. P.J. Hairston, James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock combined to score 52 of Carolina's 68 points.
The trio also accounted for 24 boards (eight apiece), five dimes and four steals.
There is no question this group should be on the floor together much more often. It is clear they are the most active players Roy has to offer, and their scoring average of 41.5 points per game says all you need to know about that category.
Dexter Strickland Can Still Drive
Particularly in the first half, Dexter Strickland showed his repaired ACL isn't holding him back from slashing in the paint. And that's the Strickland this team needs more of.
In his shortened 2011-12 season, Strickland led the team in field-goal percentage with a mark of 57 percent. That was because he took fewer jump shots, focusing primarily on getting to the rim.
This season, he is only shooting 42.8 percent, which is the worst shooting percentage of his career at Chapel Hill.
That is because he settles too much for jump shots. Even worse, those attempts have included threes—which is far from his specialty—along with contested and fall-away jumpers.
Strickland should only be taking open jump shots and slashing to the basket. Otherwise, he should just be dishing it off to someone that can score more efficiently.
We've seen what he is capable of now, with his 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting. The knee can no longer be used as an excuse for him not taking it to the hole.
And on a side note, Strickland also made all four of his free throws, and was the only one with a perfect day at the charity stripe despite his 62.5 percent free-throw shooting this season.
The Tar Heel Guards Need to Post Up More
Too often, the Tar Heels settle for threes when they are perfectly capable of scoring inside. I guess that's what happens when a team is stockpiled with shooters and very little inside presence at center.
McDonald, Bullock and Hairston all joined the program as shooting guards. But the early departure of Harrison Barnes, and an abundance of depth at the 2, has forced the trio of shooters to also play the 3 and 4 positions.
Their primary instincts aren't to post up; they want to drop the almighty three-ball.
That's fine if those shots are falling, but Carolina seems to die as often as it lives by the three. Over the last two games, the Tar Heels have only made 11 of their 38 shots beyond the arc.
Point guard Marcus Paige accounted for six of those misses, but 11-of-32 from Bullock, Hairston and McDonald is nothing to brag about either.
In the first half, we saw all three off them post up defenders with success. McDonald looked like he was set to abuse Tyler Thornton after backing him down and dropping a turnaround jumper in his eyes. I don't think we ever saw McDonald post up again.
The Tar Heels just beat up the Blue Devils on the inside during the first half, between dribble drives, post ups and activity on the offensive glass. They were also 3-of-7 from downtown in that half because the inside game gave them open looks.
In the second half the team got behind, so the shooters reverted to desperation threes once again. The result was a 2-of-11 performance from deep.
Distributors Pass Up the Post Far Too Often
Passing up the post is a trend I have noticed throughout the season. Perhaps the sometimes unsure hands of McAdoo and Joel James have something to do with that. Or maybe it's the overall lack of scoring efficiency from the Carolina post players when their backs are to the basket.
Whatever the reasoning, it doesn't matter.
When a big has his defender sealed, you get him the ball immediately. Period.
Not only has he earned the right to the ball by fighting for his spot on the floor, but he is also in the perfect position to score. Even more crucial is the fact that a pass to the post draws defenders in, opening up other spots on the floor.
McAdoo doesn't mind passing. He will get it to the open man if he sees him.
I have seen way too many empty possessions this season that could have resulted in a score had the distributors just fed the post. Last night was no exception.
Distributors Also Seem Afraid to Dish It to the Cutter
In addition to passing up the post, the Tar Heels have shown a propensity to overlook the cutters. Earlier in the season, I was pointing out that the players weren't cutting to the basket enough. Now they are, but nobody is getting them the rock.
I'm not sure if it is fear of the turnover or they just recognize the play too late. Either way, it has been painful to watch.
One of Hairston's turnovers was from trying to get it to Jackson Simmons when he was cutting. Unfortunately, Hairston looked like he was shooting, so Simmons was just looking to get the rebound. As a result, the pass flew right by him.
The play may not have unfolded the way Hairston was hoping, but he tried to do the right thing.
J.P. Tokoto is probably the most aggressive passer on the team, and he has his fair share of turnovers from trying to make the same play. But if I were a coach, I would take that over passing up the cutter every time.
And where did the Carolina alley-oop go? I don't have any stats to back it up, but I'm pretty sure we can count the amount of lobs this season on one hand.
The Tar Heels have to find a way to get it to the cutter.
The Tar Heels Still Can't Play a Consistent 40 Minutes
It's tough to pinpoint why the Tar Heels can't go 40 minutes without some serious struggles. Is it a lack of intensity, experience or endurance?
It's probably a little bit of everything.
After a blazing start to the first half, marked by tight defense and efficient inside scoring, the Tar Heels yet again dropped off in the second half. Give some credit to Duke and Mike Krzyzewski for halftime adjustments, but Carolina was just as much at fault for changing the way it played.
During the first half, Carolina's half-court offense was efficient, using great spacing and penetration to keep the Duke defenders on their heels. The Tar Heels also played the best perimeter defense of their season, holding the Blue Devils to just 1-of-4 shooting behind the arc.
In the second half, everything changed.
Duke was able to connect on 5-of-12 threes, and many of them were wide-open looks. On the other end of the court, Carolina missed 13 of its final 20 shots. The team also failed to convert on the line, going 6-of-13 down the final stretch.
It is simply puzzling.
The Tar Heels Can Beat Duke
North Carolina's previous six road losses came at an average deficit of 16 points, including losses by 24 (Indiana) and 26 points (Miami). UVA was the only one of those six teams UNC led at the half.
And even though Carolina only had a four-point lead at the half last night, it felt like it dominated the first 20 minutes. And of all places, it was at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Because of how poorly this team has played in front of the road crowd, it almost felt like a given that the Blue Devils and the Cameron Crazies would drill the young Tar Heels right into the ground.
But that wasn't the case, and Carolina made a pretty strong showing—strong enough to contend it could beat Duke in the Dean Dome when the regular season comes to an end on Mar. 9.
That would certainly put a cherry on top of its bid for a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Contrarians will probably say that Duke just played a poor game, and there is some merit to that. But a lot of its poor performance had to do with the intensity and effort of the Carolina defense.
If the Tar Heels can finish the remainder of the season strong, and cap it off with a win over Duke, then—and only then—we can consider the night of Feb. 13 a moral victory.