If the field for the 2014 NCAA men's basketball tournament was selected today, North Carolina would be on the outside looking in.
Instead of making their 45th March Madness appearance two months from now, the Tar Heels very likely will be wondering what went wrong with their 2013-14 season.
Their impressive nonconference victories against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky should have set the team up for a secure place on Selection Sunday.
But losing early games against Belmont, Texas and UAB nearly nullifies those quality wins. If you factor in its 1-4 ACC start, with losses to Wake Forest, Miami, Syracuse and Virginia, Carolina has made it difficult on itself to even make the cut come tourney time.
Looking at RPI history is a good gauge in predicting UNC's chances of being selected for the NCAA tournament. Rocky Top Talk's Will Shelton states the truth when he says that, "Since the tournament expanded to 68 teams, no major conference team has been left out with an RPI better than 50. Get in the RPI Top 50, you're in."
Shelton points out that, last year, Kentucky did not make the tournament with an RPI of 57 and a 21-11 record.
The Tar Heels need to follow a different blueprint in order to be selected for the 2014 NCAA tournament. Here are some immediate changes that they need to make:
Give Playing Time to Anyone who Plays Tough Defense
There is virtually no way the Tar Heels are going to get on a roll without playing aggressive, tenacious defense.
They have the athletes. They have the length. They have decent depth.
However, their defensive showing in their five ACC games has been anything but aggressive and tenacious.
The energy level and intensity that was displayed against Virginia was dreadful. Even playing a zone, Tar Heel defenders did not get out to challenge the Cavalier shooters, and they did not stay in front of anyone who was trying to penetrate from the perimeter.
From this point forward, playing time should be doled out based on defensive effort and effectiveness. When Carolina rediscovers its ability to defend, it will start taking it to its opponents again.
Get Back to Taking the Ball to the Rim
Earlier in the season, when Carolina was playing its best, the Tar Heels were deliberately working the ball inside and forcefully taking it to the rim.
As they did, they were consistently drawing fouls and getting to the line.
Free-throw rate (the ratio of free-throw attempts to field-goal attempts) is one of Dean Oliver's Four Factors of Basketball Success. Oliver believes that:
Teams that get to the line more are more effective than teams that make a higher percentage of their free throws. Game-by-game exceptions can definitely exist - there are plenty of games that are lost by a team missing its foul shots - but over the long haul, just getting to the line frequently wins a lot more games than missing a few freebies will lose.
Here's a snapshot of how effective the Tar Heels were when they were getting to the line in their big, early season victories:
|Good Things Happen when UNC is Aggressive with the Ball|
Instead of pounding the ball inside, getting fouled and getting to the line, Carolina recently has been settling for jumpers and shooting fadeaway shots from the blocks.
The team seems to be more focused on avoiding contact than playing through it.
The Tar Heels are almost like a different team in their four ACC losses:
|Bad Things Happen when UNC is Passive with the Ball|
UNC must get back to getting the ball into the paint and forcing the issue on offense. If the Tar Heels do, they will find their early season offensive mojo.
Do Whatever It Takes to Improve Free-Throw Shooting
It is hard to imagine that a team as talented as UNC could be shooting 62 percent (No. 340 in the nation) from the free-throw line this season.
Every team has off nights. The Tar Heels are making life miserable for themselves by not being able to convert scoring opportunities from the charity stripe.
In its seven losses, Carolina is hitting a dreadful 48.7 percent (77-of-158) of its free throws.
The only player who can be proud of his performance at the line is leading scorer Marcus Paige. He is shooting 90.1 percent (73-of-81) on the season. A look at some of the other top scorers paints the dismal picture:
|Free Throw Woes|
|J.P. Tokoto||Leslie McDonald||James Michael McAdoo||Kennedy Meeks|
Power forward James Michael McAdoo's struggles are compounded because he has attempted 29 percent of the Tar Heels' free throws this year.
The most recent addition to Williams' staff, Hubert Davis, should be a good shot doctor for this team. Davis, according to his coaching bio, holds the UNC record for career three-point percentage at 43.5 percent. In his four years in Chapel Hill (1988-92), Davis also shot a notable 81.9 percent from the line.
Not only should individual players stay after practice to sharpen their free-throw shooting skills, significant time should be devoted to this during the team's daily sessions.
The outcome of some of the Tar Heels' remaining games will be determined by how well they do at the free-throw line.
Knock down their freebies, and they will come away with a "W." Continue hitting less than two-thirds of their free-throw attempts, and they will lose some close ones.
North Carolina has dug a deep hole for itself.
The Tar Heels are staggering and stumbling out of the ACC gate.
The only good news is they have 13 regular-season games left, plus the conference tournament, to scrape and scratch their way back into March Madness consideration.
Can the Tar Heels do it? Yes, it is possible.
Will they do what is necessary to turn this season around? If they do, it will be one of the most dramatic midseason recoveries in some time.