With a little over two minutes left in Sunday's game versus Belmont, UNC held an eight point lead and appeared to be headed for a hard fought win over a scrappy mid-major. Then a fairly uncharacteristic implosion for Tar Heel basketball occurred resulting in only the second non-conference loss at home ever in the Roy Williams era. Having snatched a loss from the jaws of victory was more than enough catalyst to turn widely held concerns about this team into a full blown panic.
When UNC or any team loses, there is always an instant analysis that latches onto the most negative aspects of the game and attempts to extrapolate them as the way things will be the rest of the season. Some of that is deserved and some of it your standard overreaction. The challenge is to figure out what disturbing aspects of the Tar Heels' loss to Belmont were signs of gloom and doom or could just be filed under the "bad day" category.
Obviously much attention is given to the free throw shooting and rightfully so. For a team to miss 26 of 48 free throw attempts is a cause for concern except for the fact it was so mindbogglingly awful the chances it happens again are remote. The Tar Heels entered Sunday's game shooting 66% from the line and given what is known about this team, that is probably fairly close to where this group ends up from the line as the season plays out. To shoot over 20% worse than the season average all in one game is the stuff of flukes or at least everyone hopes that is the case.
In fact the very idea that UNC made 48 trips to the free throw line should be regarded as a positive sign. The offense, while still given to moments of discombobulation, shot 48% from the floor and scored 80 points despite the free throw shooting woes. UNC won the rebounding battle which included 21 offensive boards for a 48.8% offensive rebounding rate. Unlike the Friday game versus Holy Cross, the offense against Belmont was better even though the free throw shooting was awful. It was also very much focused on getting the ball inside and driving to the basket which tended to eschew three point shooting. That is not necessarily surprising since UNC only has one solid perimeter shooter and a glut of interior players.
Where it does become a concern is when UNC gets bombarded by three pointers as it sometimes the case. Belmont hit 15 threes versus only two for UNC. That is a 45-6 deficit in a game the Heels lost by three. The lack of three point shooting is a direct result of Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston sitting on the bench in suits. Setting aside the oft cited complaint about UNC's perimeter defense, there are games where the opposing team gets hot from three. Not having any means of mitigating in terms of point differential that hurts. More importantly, the lack of offensive balance makes the Heels much easier to defend. As long as UNC is forced to operate without perimeter scoring beyond what Paige can provide, defenses will key on the interior players and rob the Tar Heels of much needed spacing for the offense to flow.
To that end, what UNC needs most right now is for the NCAA to resolve eligibility statuses of Hairston and McDonald now. The coaches and players need to know what the hand for this season looks like not a bunch of questions. Will both play? Will both not play? If one or both play then when will they play? All these questions need an immediate resolution. If the team is left gutted of two vital pieces, at least everyone will know that and can come to terms reality and move on. If one or both play, that can be factored in and likewise everyone can move forward. However, the limbo needs to end so everyone from Roy Williams to the lowliest fan on the message board can take a concrete view of this team's makeup and the season as a whole.
There is a juncture in situations such as the one involving Hairston and McDonald's eligibility where the desire for it to simply be over outweighs any other consideration. Obviously having Hairston and McDonald is the best case scenario and anything less than that points to the possibility of more nights like the one the Tar Heels faced against Belmont. However there is some measure of comfort in knowing the team you have is the team you have. At least then the coaches and players can focus on accepting way things are and build off of that.