Let's be honest. There are concerns with the 2006-07 version on the Tar Heels. The expectations based on the talent and the perception that no one in the ACC was even close may have been a tad high. Or maybe not. Maybe everyone else was much closer to UNC than we all thought. At any rate UNC sits in a very precarious situation. The #1 seed for the NCAA Tournament is hanging by a thread, the Heels have now twice squandered the outright lead in the ACC, and some of the fan base is restless to the point of openly question whether or not Roy is a good coach. And while I am not going to jump into that pit of snakes, I think there are five issues in respect to this team that should be addressed.
1. The Rotation
This is every analyst's and talking heads' favorite point to exhaust when discussing UNC. Roy has made it clear that he thinks the best chance for his team to win is to play 12 guys. Statistically speaking UNC actually only plays ten players for more than ten minutes with Stepheson and Thomas averaging around seven minutes a game. The premise most folks are operating on is that it will become necessary to play only eight players consistently with the other four seeing the floor sparingly. As the theory goes the most consistent line up with offer UNC more consistency on offense and allow the players to develop better on the court chemistry.
Based on my observations what Roy appears to be doing is (1) shuffling multiple players in and out in hopes of creating a depth gap with the opposing team and (2) responding to various game situations by inserting different personnel as the flow of the game dictates. And this should come as no surprise since Roy has stated he does not believe in combinations per se. He also tends to punish poor effort by benching a player and rewards great effort with playing time. In one respect the depth gap works except when UNC plays a team that successfully controls the tempo or has enough depth to handle UNC. The common thread in the five losses is that the depth issue never kicked in. Gonzaga and NC State controlled the tempo and staked decent leads, Virginia Tech has the depth to hang with UNC as does Maryland. Another part of the mix here is Roy's own admission that he tends to substitute by the seat of his pants rather than by any sort of design.
My take is that it might work to invest in more combinations of players which could be accomplished while using much the same spread of minutes among the players. I am fairly certain the offense and defense is charted with the combinations of players in mind. The question is which teams are the most effective in either offensive or defensive situations? Determining that would go a long way to figuring out which players should be on the floor at any given series of plays. In fact I would also think that as long as you can keep it close in the first half then the revolving door at the UNC bench can be employed which would give UNC a leg up on the edge. However in the second half I think having the rotation function with about eight players who are used to playing with each other might help UNC overcome some of the offensive consistency.
2. Defending the Other Team's Shooting Guard
Roy did some spinning on the issue of one player, usually a guard, killing UNC by saying Maryland had five different players score in the final four minutes. That still does not change the fact that D.J. Strawberry has 27, Duke's Jon Scheyer had 26, VT's Zabian Dowdell had 33 and 23, NC State's Courtney Fells had 21, Tennessee's JaJuan Smith had 18, and Gonzaga's Derek Raivio had 21 all against UNC. The common thread here is that all of these guys were playing two guard who had Wayne Ellington as a defender. So while it is great Ellington scores 12 ppg, it is possible he might be giving up that much with his failure to play good defense. The point is all it takes is one big 30 point night from some opposing guard in the NCAA Tournament to end the season. This is why I think reducing Ellington's minutes in favor of Marcus Ginyard and a little Wes Miller might be more productive overall than the points Ellington is putting on the board. UNC is not lacking in offensive options with Ellington off the floor and the value of Ginyard's defense especially as it relates to shutting down a hot shooting guard cannot be overlooked. It just seems that if you get into a game with one guy who appears to be getting off, why not tap either Miller or Ginyard to shut him down a bit and take away him as an offensive option.
3. The Half Court Set
Anyone else concerned about the inability of this team to run one play and get a good shot? This, almost more than anything, scares the living daylights out of me. What is even more shocking is that UNC has numerous offensive options yet in a late game situation or even in the course of the game when a basket is absolutely needed, the half court offense does not seem to click. UNC has lost two games while possessing the basketball with a chance to win or tie and being totally inept when it comes to getting a good shot. It also should be noted that during the few minutes Maryland was busy dismantling UNC's lead, the Heels ran offensive sets in the half court and came up empty. At the same time I am convinced one of the reasons why this is such a struggle is the lack consistent play from the 2 or 3 position who can work to create his own shot. So when it comes down to one play it is either on Ty Lawson to create something on the dribble penetration or hope that you can isolate Brandan Wright or Tyler Hansbrough for a move to the basket. The problem is without the significant threat from either the 2 or the 3 slot, defenses can stay in front of Lawson and front the post players to disrupt their ability to receive the ball in a scoring position. Since Ellington's defense is so suspect and his ability to create his own shot is equally suspect it either means that Danny Green or Ginyard need to be more of an offensive threat or Reyshawn Terry needs to step it up. Terry is the X factor. When he is on, UNC plays at a different level. He gives the opposing defense pause and opens up the other aspects of the offense. In a half court situation if Terry is an serious option I think it creates more flexibility all around. Aside from that or a more well rounded game from Ellington, the offense will struggle when it is fully being keyed upon by another team's defense.
4. Rebounding and Effort
It happened against Virginia Tech, NC State, and it happened against Maryland. The best rebounding team in the ACC with a +9 edge in rebounding over their opponents has often been caught flat footed on the boards by teams who struggle in this particular facet of the game. And there is really no other way to look at this besides the effort and fundamentals of rebounding. Opposing teams seems to understand better than the Heels that they can get an edge by crashing the backboard and taking away high percentage shots from UNC by limiting them to one shot. The offensive boards are particularly troubling since that doubles the defensive effort required to stop a team from scoring. In broader terms it is about intensity. I think the rebounding may prove more than anything else that this team tries to rest too much on their talent and does not put forth an effort which convinces you that every rebound and loose ball must be gathered at all costs. As every team that has beaten UNC this season has proven, talent can take you a long way but that little extra push can give you a distinct edge regardless of the talent gap. And while UNC has been taught this lesson at least five times now and each time we hear from the players how they need to change the way they approach the game. At some this either has to sink in and become the basis for this team bringing focused intensity to the floor or the next time the lesson is forgotten it could be six months before they can put it to practice again.
5. Place Foot on Neck and Push Down
Finishing teams off is paramount. UNC allowed Maryland and Virginia Tech to hang around to the point all it took was a sequence of two big shots from the other side to shift the momentum. Some folks call it the killer instinct, I call it the simple ability to make the plays necessary to control the lead and it requires all of the above. It means stopping the other team's guy when they need a basket to close the gap. It means scoring on a crucial possession in the half court or grabbing a key rebound or loose ball. It is about making enough good plays in the clutch to win and it often helps if you have the rotation tuned to the point where you have a cohesive unit out there when it gets down to the brass tacks. The ongoing evaluation of UNC as a team is that they possess as much talent as anyone in the country. The same thing was said about the 2005 team which went on to win the national title. That team had all the right components in terms of personnel as well as the chemistry of having played together for two years and also been at a point in 2002-03 where everything was not turning up so rosy. Compare that to this squad which is shuffling in new personnel who by and large are still figuring out how it all works on the college level. They are also playing beside guys who are only in their second season with the exception of Terry, Thomas, and Miller. In every respect this team is very good and if they can ever find that button to push to bring it all together and play with championship level effort, then they can make a run to the national championship.
This is not as much as coaching issue as it is the players making the effort to do all of the not so glamorous tasks in the course of a game to effectively outwork their opponent. A team that is more talented than you which also works their rear ends off is pretty freaking difficult to win against. The former is not really a problem, the questions we all have lies in the latter half of that equation. A late season road game in Atlanta is a great test to find out if this Tar Heel team is ready to put the fire with all of the obvious skills they bring to the court.
Otherwise it is going to be a total crapshoot from here on out and we can readily pronounce this team to be one year away.