What we learned last night that we really hope are not ongoing problems.
A loss like this one certainly will give the UNC coaches and player pause. It also opens up the debate as to what went wrong. To great extent I am more than willing to chalk this up as simply a crappy game that hopefully will not be repeated anytime this season. There are some aspects of the loss that warrants a second look and improvement on the part of the Heels lest it bites them in a Sweet Sixteen game.
1. Point guard play
Yes, Ty Lawson is a sensational point guard as long as he does not face a point guard at least his equal and the lane is not clogged with big men who can play defense. That is what happened against Boston College and incidentally that is also what happened against Kansas and also the problem in the Maryland game UNC lost last season. Now, I don't consider Grevis Vasquez to be at least the equal of Lawson on a regular basis but he was in that particular game. UNC goes has Lawson goes. If Lawson is matched then the Heels struggle. If Lawson cannot dominate the matchup then the Heels get the transition game going and tons of easy baskets. Versus Boston College it was the former as Tyrese Rice dominated on both ends of the court. Lawson could not stop Rice and Rice, with help did a good job keeping Lawson off his game. The result was predictable, mainly because we only have a handful of losses to look at in the past two seasons and Lawson's poor play is one common theme.
Fixes?: Nothing concrete. Lawson needs to step up and stay aggressive. It may simply be a matter of Lawson being tougher when the game is not coming easily to him. There are no fixes for the fact he is only 5-11 but I would think he can do a much better job preparing mentally for the game. UNC can accomodate bad games from pretty much anyone on the team with the exception of Ty Lawson. The past two years if proof of that.
2. Interior Play
First issue: Deon Thompson played about as soft as he has played in his career versus Boston College. Without even bothering with pesky issues like missing 5 of 6 free throws, Thompson did a fairly poor job playing strong defense. For example, Thompson's idea of defending a BC player driving to the basket for a layup is to bump him with his chest on the way up. Something tells me, most players can score after a little bump but if you pop up there and take a swipe at the ball, maybe commit a hard foul, at least you stop the basket. The frustrating thing about Thompson is his play is markedly better in terms of his ability to score. He is very smooth with his footwork and shots. The downside is he still lacks toughness when it comes to rebounding and allowed himself to be physicaled out of the game by the BC frontline. On one hand, Brandan Wright had the same problem and physical teams, like Michigan State neutralized him much the same way Thompson was last night. The difference is Thompson is now a junior and has enough experience to figure out how he can still make an impact even if the matchup is not favorable.
Second issue: Let me say that no one will ever argue Tyler Hansbrough is anything but one of the great Tar Heel players of all time. That being said there are times when his individual play does not mesh in with the rest of the team. There is a disjointed feel to the way the Heels execute on offense at times as though the team offense stops when the ball goes into Hansbrough. Obviously given Hansbrough's track record, he should be the first option for the offense and the offensive flow should have him as the focal point in the halfcourt. The chief complaint I have is the offense executes but once the ball goes into Hansbrough that is the offense. It is well known that Hansbrough does not look to pass the ball once he gets it on the block. I would venture to say 85% of the time that is fine because he shoots a high percentage and is an excellent free throw shooter. The other 15% of the time is when Hansbrough needs to recognize that there are other offensive options on the floor. Granted this is a tough call to make when you are being double teamed and possibly hacked on the arms but something that needs to be added as a dimension to his game. All great players get evaluated not only on their skills and production but also on whether they make their teammates better. I am not sure that can be said of Hansbrough at this point. Whether UNC can get by with it remains to be seen.
Third issue: More of a question but where in the name of the Old Well was Ed Davis during the 2nd half last night? Davis only played 16 minutes down four from his 20 mpg average. During that time he had 5 boards and six points. He also had two blocks and only one personal foul. So I have to wonder why Roy decided to five Deon Thompson 20 minutes in this game in which he had basically the same output on worse shooting than Davis who is a much better rebounder? I am not sure how much it would have mattered but if Thompson is struggling early, I would think the logical move is to get Davis more minutes. You also had Danny Green on the bench with four fouls so I would question why Davis was not in more or why Roy did not think to try Thompson-Hansbrough-Davis at the same time for a stretch or two.
Fixes? Hansbrough needs to play in a way that does not obscure Thompson who in turn needs to play with some legitimate toughness. I think Thompson can make the leap but with Hansbrough I wonder if the manner in which he plays is too engrained. I also think the more Ed Davis the better given his natural talents. And if Tyler Zeller can go by mid-February, then bring him back. The interior needs depth and Zeller being a seven footer gives them a skilled big man who can, at the very least, make life hard for opposing big men.
3. Marcus Ginyard
I am beginning to wonder if Ginyard might be the missing piece of the puzzle. I know there has been lots of criticism of Ginyard for his lack of offensive production but consider the following. When Danny Green got into foul trouble Roy leaned pretty heavily on Will Graves to fill the gap which is fine, Graves is much improved but does not play defense at the same level as Ginyard. Secondly, does anyone think a healthy Ginyard playing at least 25 minutes and being assigned to Rakim Sanders, Reggie Jackson or even Tyrese Rice at times may have slowed any of those three players down? I think a a healthy Ginyard can do wonders to stop a hot player, especially where Sanders or Jackson were concerned. There is also the rebounding element. Ginyard averaged 4.5 boards per game last season and that is missing when you compare the team rebounding averages over last season. Ginyard is also a vocal leader. His presence on the court as a effective player should make this team better.
Fixes? The Heels need Ginyard back to 100%. Roy has expressed concerns about how well he is moving and that could be related to conditioning. If not that then I fear he has simply lost something going through the surgery and having been there when I ran cross country in college if you lose that extra edge it is nearly impossible to find it again. Hopefully Ginyard can find a groove, maybe even have a nice game to get some confidence back.
Roy indicated in the Monday press conference that he thinks the defense is better than it was last season. And taking the BC game with the Eagles' flex offense in a vacuum there may not be any cause for concern about the defense. So many things went wrong against BC, that it coune be just another item on the list or taken with the games in December following MSU it might be the extension of a trend. In short the Heels' defense has not been very good since the MSU game which was the point Pomeroy had them ranked 7th in defensive effeciency. Now the Heels are 20th and the stats bear out some of the issues since the MSU game. For example in the first eight games saw UNC hold opponents to an effective FG% of 43%. In the six games since then UNC has given up a eFG% of 48%. How does that rank? 43% puts you in the top 30 whereas 48% puts you around 130th in the category. During the past two games UNC has surrendered a fairly alarming amount offensive rebounds to the opposing team. Against Nevada, UNC gave up 44% of available opportunities on the defensive glass, against BC it was 40%. The Heels on average give up 31% of the available rebounds on defense, prior to the Nevada game that was 29%. Basically teams are shooting better against UNC since the Michigan State game and the defensive glass in the past two games has been found lacking. That is not a good combination because what it says is a team is able to hit shots and the ones they miss they are getting back meaning defensive stops are hard to come by. The silver lining is UNC does a good job creating turnovers via steals and blocks, that was not the case against BC but give the Eagles credit where that is concerned.
Fixes? Let's see. Roy has taken rims down, talked about defense until he is blue in the face and spend huge swaths of practices on it. Based on that we can reasonably assume the lapses are not because the players have not practiced it. Lack of focus could be a key factor. Roy points to the gambling nature of the defense as giving up some easy looks and the press UNC employs at times always seems to be broken fairly easily. I wonder to what extent Roy could or should at least think about a zone defense at times but I know the answer to that already. You would think UNC has enough speed to trap more but there are too many issues with players not rotating fast enough or to the right place to make that work. In short, I have no idea. I do know the interior defense is only going to be average with Hansbrough and Thompson. Davis lends you a shot blocking element as does Green. Ginyard's presence should improve certain aspects but I am reaching a point where I am not convinced this team can exceed a certain ceiling in terms of team defense which means they best avoid an offensive night like the last one.
5. General Intenisty and Focus
Going back to the beginning of the 2008 season, UNC loses about every 18 games on average. With the exception of the Duke game we have heard the same mantra: Players need to focus, need to do a better job, Roy needs to do a better job, team needs a wake-up call. My question is how many wake-up calls does it take to get this group to buy into the idea that every time you walk on the court you do so with the purpose of totally destroying the other team for FORTY FREAKING MINUTES. This group of players has the horrific tendency to show up in spurts only, especially where defense is concerned. I hoped like mad that the Michigan State game was a sign these guys finally understood how to come out with energy, bury someone and keep piling dirt on the grave until you created a small mountain. Since Detroit there has basically been none of that save what happened after Nevada jumped out early against the Heels on New Year's Eve. Whether it was Oral Roberts or Evansville or Valpo, UNC played a game that was generally sloppy lacking a certain cohesion. At the time we blamed exams, Hansbrough chasing a record, snow in Chicago, small rodent like creature who were accidentally fed after midnight and jet lag for the Heels muddling through most of December.
Now if you recall, this is pretty much the same run-up to the Maryland game last season. The Heels had some muddle moments of tight first halves against Valpo and Kent State, needed OT to beat a good Clemson team, played a crappy game against UNCA followed by the drubbing of NCSU and a near loss at Georgia Tech. Outside the first half of the NCSU game, the 2nd halves against Valpo and Kent or brief flashes versus Clemson, we basically saw much the same sub-par play from the #1 team in the nation. Same deal this season only and much like the Maryland game, BC caught the Heels flat-footed when they stepped up to the challenge. It is a familiar pattern and one I personally would love to ditch.
Fixes? The only fix is for these players to commit individually and as a team to bring it at a top level every single night. By no means do I think anyone on this team is just slacking off for the sake of it but I do question whether they bring the mental toughness every single game. I question whether they are capable of consistently shooting for a certain caliber of play regardless of the opponent. I know you cannot always get there and we all know crap will happen to create a bad game but I would like to at least feel like these players are stepping their game up every time they take the floor. They seem to do it better on the road than they do at home which means I know they can do it.
The season has plenty of time left in it and nothing I see here is a deal breaker. My sincere hope is they find ways to improve on the above aspects of their game which would really be what's needed to put them on a different level than everyone else.