The North Carolina Tar Heels may be facing No. 9 Wisconsin Wednesday night without star forward Harrison Barnes, who sprained his ankle in the loss to UNLV on Saturday night, and that’s just one of the problems facing them during a tough non-conference stretch.
"If we had a game today, he would not have played," Williams said on Monday.
But Barnes, who would be replaced by Reggie Bullock (7.8 points per game) and P.J. Hairston (9.7), injury isn’t necessarily the Tar Heels' biggest problem as they prepare to play two highly ranked opponents in the span of five days, traveling to Lexington to play the now top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday.
The film and stats from Saturday night’s loss to the Runnin’ Rebels confirmed what most expected: the Tar Heels are in trouble when they find themselves in a jump shot competition.
Luckily, for a team facing very high expectations, it’s only November—and nobody knows that better than their coach. Surprisingly, even after two National Championships and seemingly annual appearances deep in the Big Dance, there are still critics howling that Ol’ Roy isn’t a good game coach.
The chief complaint seems to be his (intentional) unwillingness to call time out when the opposing team is making a big run. When no time out was called during UNLV’s 14-point run that turned the game, Williams was surely teaching this current bunch of Heels a lesson in coping with adversity. Come March or April, he will most times utilize the same strategy, saving his timeouts for the end of the game and demonstrating his confidence in his charges to compose themselves and take corrective action.
As it is November and the UNLV game means little in the grand scheme of a long season, Williams was also likely compiling video for a lengthy review back Chapel Hill. The session was most likely called "What Not To Do."
We surmise that he spent a great deal of time talking about what works best for the Tar Heel offense—working from the inside out, rebounding to start their vaunted transition game, making free throws and playing tougher perimeter defense. All of those lead to good things on offense.
When North Carolina is at their best, they are working the ball into their big men, taking shots in the paint, drawing fouls and making those freebies. Against UNLV, big men Tyler Zeller and John Henson got off to a rocky start, and unlike Tyler Hansbrough, who consistently anchored the 2009 National Championship team, the UNC bigs simply didn’t recover. Zeller was in foul trouble and only scored five points, while Henson was a bit better tallying 11 points. Neither looked particularly comfortable.
The UNLV strategy was to be very physical under the basket and to try and steel the ball when the Carolina big men put the ball on the floor. As Williams said after the game, they need to be “stronger” with the ball down at point-blank range. You can bet the Wisconsin Badgers will be putting big strong bodies on Zeller and Henson on Wednesday night and looking to steal the ball from the back side.
When things didn’t go well in the paint, the Heels became impatient, relying on one-on-one play and jump shooting. Simply put, it didn’t work. If one were to chart most of the Tar Heels' losses during the Williams era, this lack of patience and determination to get the ball inside is a factor in most losses, and Saturday night was no different.
Finally, rebounding and defense were problems in both games in the Las Vegas tournament. While North Carolina and their very talented point guard Kendall Marshall can run a transition offense off of a made basket, it works better, and more frequently, when started by a defensive rebound. The Heels have to get more rebounds, or life against Wisconsin and No. 1 Kentucky is going to be difficult. The 6-0 Badgers have out-rebounded opponents by an average of 14 per game and are shooting 47 percent from three-point range.
Annually, it appears that it takes some portion of the season for the UNC coaching staff to convince their players that good, tough defense leads to a more efficient offense. The loss to UNLV again reinforces that point. The Tar Heels couldn’t stop UNLV and, subsequently, they couldn’t get their own offense jump started with transition baskets that are the bread and butter of Williams maximum-possession, racehorse style of up-tempo basketball.
Simply put, if the Tar Heels don’t get better at what makes Roy William’s teams so good—good defense, rebounding, transition offense and strong interior play from their big men—they could wake up on Sunday morning staring at a three-game losing streak.