The North Carolina Tar Heels managed to avoid going 0-4 in the ACC with their first win over Boston College this weekend. But that feeling of elation was short-lived, as UVa handed UNC its seventh loss of the season and fourth in conference play on Monday night.
While the Cavaliers played an excellent team game and limited their mistakes, it was clear the Tar Heels weren't playing their best basketball, either. But you could say that about any of their losses this season.
Mind you, this is a team that ranks fourth in the ACC in points (75.2), first in rebounds (40.8), second in steals (8.0), fourth in assists (15.4) and fourth in blocks per game (5.2). And it's producing those numbers with a schedule that ranks 23rd in the nation, according to ESPN's RPI rankings.
So, how has this team managed to stumble through the 2013-14 season? The answer isn't very complicated.
The Tar Heels' most glaring weakness has to be the free-throw debacle we've witnessed over the past three months. They did do an excellent job of getting to the line during the nonconference slate, which has helped boost their attempts per game to 27.4—best in the ACC.
However, in the five ACC games thus far, Carolina is just averaging 16.4 attempts per game. And, as if the Tar Heels' season free-throw percentage wasn't bad enough at 61.5 percent, they have only converted 57.3 percent of their free throws in those contests.
You typically will see free-throw attempts go down in conference play, as the refs tend to eat the whistle and let the kids play. But the Tar Heels haven't been consistently feeding the bigs down low, and the guards are settling for jumpers instead of attacking the basket.
In the only conference win of the season, Carolina shot 20-of-30 from the charity stripe against Boston College. Sixty-seven percent may not be what we're looking for in this team, but I'll take 20 points at the line any night.
The Tar Heels have to find a way to stay aggressive and capitalize on the freebies they are given. They may not have the guys to shoot 70 percent as a team, but they're capable of a lot better than 61.5 percent.
We just touched on their issues with shot selection as it pertained to free throws. But we'll delve into that subject a little more here, as the Tar Heels are seventh in field-goal percentage (48.3 percent), 10th in two-point percentage (48.9 percent) and 13th in the conference in three-point percentage (30.4 percent).
There have been many instances where the bigs have gained position and the guards fail to feed them the rock. It seems most of James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks' points come off the offensive boards.
Johnson is by far the best scorer in the post, with a deadly hook and turnaround jumper. He needs to be fed consistently when he's in the game. He was on the floor for 23 minutes against UVA and only had four shot attempts.
Meeks does get blocked more often than you would like with his limited athleticism, but he has excellent feet and still leads the team with a field-goal percentage of 56 percent.
McAdoo is limited in his post game; there is no denying that. But when he is on a roll, like he was in the first eight minutes of the Virginia game before he subbed out, he needs to be fed the rock until he goes cold or gets too willy-nilly with his shots.
It isn't often McAdoo will throw down like this with someone in his face:
There simply aren't enough consistent weapons on this team for anyone not to get the ball when he's hot.
Everyone has been hoping Leslie McDonald would help turn around the three-point percentage, but it doesn't seem to be happening. In nine games, he's just 16-of-52 from deep.
Marcus Paige hasn't fared much better since McDonald's return, either. He's just 18-of-56 during that stretch, which has only compounded the situation.
I know there needs to be spacing, and they need to attempt threes to keep defenses honest. But they're shooting 15 a game during ACC play and knocking them down at a 22.7 percent clip. That doesn't help anything.
Rotate the ball, attack the paint or feed the big boys. If it's wide-open, take the three.
Turnovers have become a serious issue for the Heels this season. They're averaging 12.8 turnovers per game, which is right near the bottom of the conference at No. 11.
Paige has excellent handles but sometimes tries too hard to out-dribble his defender. If he does it up high, that's fine. But he'll do it as he enters traffic, and that is never a good idea.
J.P. Tokoto is excellent when he isn't attempting crosscourt passes. But it seems just about every one of those gets jacked or sails out of bounds. He also telegraphs his passes when the lane closes up on a drive.
I've said it many times: Tokoto is a very gifted passer for a small forward, but he needs to be more selective.
Hands have also been a culprit of turnovers. McAdoo, Johnson and James have all been guilty of silly drops. James has struggled with his mitts since arriving in Chapel Hill, but McAdoo and Johnson just seem to lose focus or try to make a basketball move before securing the rock.
Finally, we have the biggest reason Carolina is sitting at 11-7 (1-4, ACC) right now: intensity.
It all starts on the defensive end for the Tar Heels. This team may not have a lot of offensive weapons, but it has a lot of quality defenders when the players go all-in. McAdoo, Tokoto, Paige and Nate Britt have extremely quick hands and account for 5.8 of the team's eight steals per game.
McAdoo, Johnson, Tokoto and Meeks have also proven to be effective shot-blockers.
The pieces are there; they just aren't putting forth the consistent effort that wins games at this level. This team simply isn't talented enough on the offensive end for the guys not to play their hearts out on defense.
When they get some easy fast-break points or can attack before the opposing defense sets up, the Tar Heels put up easy shots, which leads to a boost in confidence and, ultimately, shooting streaks. When they go cold, though, everyone seems to hang their heads and drag their feet on the defensive end.
That inconsistent energy has led to scoring runs by the other team that the Tar Heels are incapable of recovering from.
We can talk free throws, shot selection, turnovers, strategy—whatever you think is an issue for North Carolina. But against ACC competition, none of that means diddly if the players aren't leaving it all on the floor each and every minute of every game.
It's gut-check time for these young Heels.