The time is finally here for the North Carolina Tar Heels to make final preparations for a deep postseason run in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. UNC is enjoying a 12-game winning streak, its longest since the 2008-09 national championship team won its first 13 games. But to continue the success in postseason play, UNC needs to rethink certain aspects of their game. Let’s dig deep and take a look at the Tar Heels’ five biggest concerns for the postseason.
The Tar Heels are on a 12-game winning streak, but in the last three games UNC has won by a total of only seven points. The wins over North Carolina State, Virginia Tech, and Notre Dame, all teams with losing records in league play, show that the Tar Heels are getting more comfortable winning tight games, but a close shave is a dangerous way to win.
Guard Marcus Paige addressed the issue with C.L. Brown from ESPN.
That’s three or four in a row against teams we are capable of beating by a better margin than we have. And that’s not to knock on them, but we’ve been playing really well lately. If we have big goals and dreams, we can’t have all these sluggish games. We’ve been fortunate to be on the winning side on all of them, so it’s not too big of a concern.
In Monday’s game against Notre Dame, the Tar Heels were ahead by a 14-point margin at halftime until the Irish began to take advantage of defensive mistakes. UNC squeaked by with the 63-61 win, but it was a revealing look at what can happen to the Tar Heels once they lose focus. Coach Roy Williams even said that the team was more intense during its practice than it was during the game.
If the Tar Heels want to accomplish their big goals in the postseason, they’ll have to play all 40 minutes with 100 percent intensity, no matter the team.
In the Tar Heels’ 12-game winning streak, Marcus Paige has averaged 17.1 points and shot 45.8 percent from three-point range. He has consistently been UNC’s leading scorer and has had just five games this season when he failed to reach double figures.
But Paige was held to a season-low seven points Monday night against Notre Dame after scoring only nine against Virginia Tech on Saturday. The Irish limited him to 2-of-8 shooting from the floor and 1-of-5 from the arc. Against the Hokies, Paige was 3-of-7 from the field.
Coaches now have his number, especially Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, who went with a zone defense in an attempt to force someone other than Paige to shoot from outside, a known weak spot for UNC. Luckily for the Tar Heels, J.P. Tokoto has been shooting 56.9 percent from the field and averaging 11.2 points in the last eight games. The Tar Heels will continue to seek ways to outlast zone defenses.
The Tar Heels are hitting 33.7 percent of their three-point attempts this season, which ranks them 215th nationally (as of Thursday). This is something Williams is not used to, telling Brown the following:
If you look at our percentages, we’re not a good 3-point shooting team. Really, it’s the first time in 26 years coaching I’ve ever been concerned about a zone. I always loved it when teams played zone because we had great movement and we could shoot the crap out of the ball. Zone never bothered us. This year, people think that’s the way to play us.
The Tar Heels will have to step up their three-point game and get big points on the board to continue the winning streak in March.
Free throws are another aspect of the game that should be a concern for the Tar Heels. North Carolina has made 62.1 percent of its free throws this season. That ranks 347th nationally with only four teams shooting a worse percentage.
If the Tar Heels continue on that pace, they will finish the season as the worst free-throw shooting team in school history, and the records date back to the 1950-51 season.
In an article by Andrew Carter of The Boston Herald, Williams says he is getting too much advice from fans on the woeful free-throw shooting of the Tar Heels.
I got 100 letters this year from people who are experts, say they can fix free throws. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m not the dumbest either. If you can fix it, I would have already fixed the thing.
So far the Tar Heels have managed to beat teams despite the free-throw trouble, but there will be less margin for error in postseason play.
Paige and James Michael McAdoo are key to the Tar Heels’ success. When they struggle, the Tar Heels really struggle. Luckily, when Paige and McAdoo have been off, other players like Leslie McDonald, Brice Johnson, Nate Britt and Tokoto have stepped up.
In the close win over Notre Dame, the Tar Heels shot 50 percent and put up 41 points in the first half, which tied Florida State for the most scored against Notre Dame in ACC play in the first 20 minutes. But UNC scrambled to put in a season-low 22 points in the second half. Tokoto posted 11 points while the Tar Heels enjoyed a second half boost from Britt, Isaiah Hicks, and reserve center Desmond Hubert who helped cool off Notre Dame’s hot streak. McAdoo finished with 14 and Paige, who had a career-high 35 points against NC State on Feb. 26, managed just seven points against the Fighting Irish.
Although Paige and McAdoo are instrumental to UNC’s success, everyone has off days. In order to continue on the winning streak, every player needs be ready to contribute.