UNC Basketball: How Tar Heels Can Recover from Duke Debacle
Pitted against a sideline din that wouldn't quit, ESPN reporter Samantha Ponder was trying to relay a quote from North Carolina coach Roy Williams midway through the second half of UNC's 69-53 loss to arch-rival Duke.
Williams apparently wasn't impressed with his team's poise, and the frenzy behind Ponder was part explanation, part exoneration.
This was, after all, a mighty big stage for the young Tar Heels. That they weren't equal to the task is disappointing but not conclusive.
North Carolina can still make a deep tournament run this season.
Find the Balance Between Small and Big
North Carolina's much-discussed small lineup—James Michael McAdoo, Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and Marcus Paige (with Leslie McDonald as the sixth man)—first took root when these teams met in Durham on February 13.
Carolina played the Blue Devils closer than most folks expected, and then followed up with six consecutive conference wins (five of them by double digits). The small lineup became gospel in Chapel Hill, and the hot-hand theory seemed to dictate its continued use.
The silver lining in this loss is that it allows Coach Roy Williams a chance to reevaluate his personnel. The small lineup is still his best grouping, but Williams can now reconsider his use of reserve bigs like Desmond Hubert, Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto.
Against a team like Duke—especially during the period when Blue Devil forward Ryan Kelly was battling foul trouble—UNC's bench length could have come in handy. It's hard to blame Williams for staying small given recent results, but the window is now open to find some situational balance and for the Tar Heels to discover which game situations might best suit their other groupings.
Without question, the standout statistic in this game was North Carolina's 1-of-14 mark from the three.
It was, very simply, the difference between a competitive game and a blowout loss.
It's an easy figure to dwell on but ultimately reveals little. The Tar Heels have taken almost 600 three-point shots this year. As in every sample size that large, there are droughts and there are boons.
Tonight was a drought—simple as that.
If you're Carolina, don't let the embarrassment of one bad shooting night change your mode of attack.
If anything, the Tar Heels ought to shoot more. On the season, UNC shoots the nation's 48th-best percentage from beyond. Yet Roy Williams' team ranks near the bottom of Division I in the number of three-point shots it attempts as a percentage of total tries.
North Carolina can be a lethal shooting team, and part of the team's success over the past six games stems from an uptick in long-distance shots. That formula is what makes the Tar Heels dangerous. Don't stray from it now.
Improve the Perimeter Defense
Roy Williams' pregame comments indicated that the Tar Heels were worried about Duke forward Ryan Kelly, and indeed, North Carolina seemed to cheat toward Kelly in the early going.
Unable or unwilling to sag off Kelly when the rotation might have normally demanded it, the Tar Heels were left vulnerable to the dribble-penetration and spot-up shooting of Duke guards Seth Curry (20 points) and Quinn Cook (12 points).
With Kelly on the floor, Duke clearly presents a problem that most teams don't—namely, a stretch 4 who can punish opponents from beyond. But big-picture, let's make note of how vital tight perimeter defense will be to Carolina's ultimate success.
So long as the Heels play small, their best defense against post players is their athleticism on the perimeter. When North Carolina can bottle up the opposition's guards and deny entry passes, it can work around its lack of size.
But when ball-handlers can probe the paint against UNC, this team is vulnerable. The Tar Heels won't be able to body up against skilled bigs, so their best defense is making sure opposing forwards and centers get limited touches.
Win the Next One
Ah, the old coaching cliche.
One game at a time, right?
North Carolina gets a bye in the first round of the ACC tournament. From there the Heels draw a quarterfinal matchup against either Florida State or Clemson.
Roy Williams' squad went a combined 3-0 against those teams this year, two of which were road wins.
In fact, for all their supposed inconsistencies, these young Tar Heels went 12-2 against the ACC teams that finished below them in the conference standings. Continue that trend, and UNC should advance to the ACC semifinal. From there, a top seven seed is well within reach.
That's not a bad spot to operate out of if you're North Carolina, especially with all the turbulence at the top of this year's bracket.