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Where I Ramble About The Offense and Focal Points

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After two losses versus what are sure to be NCAA Tournament teams, we are left pondering a lot of questions about the state of the 2010-11 Tar Heel basketball teams. Is this last season all over again? What's wrong with Harrison Barnes? Why is UNC's post play like the Pillsbury Dough Boy? Was the Hofstra game a complete fluke? Why can't UNC beat NC Stat----....oh wait. Wrong spot. Sorry. Needless to say we are in full blow gnashing of teeth mode. Losing does that as we picked apart everything, assume the worst and grope for answers like we just got hired by the TSA. I would say don't panic or tell you it would be okay, but most folks already have and I don't know that it will be okay. Something is obviously amiss and thousands of UNC fans on the internet have burned countless hours since 7:45 PM last night attempting to figure out what is wrong with this team.

In all honesty, it may not be as complex as we think and imminently fixable depending on which part of the equation you are talking about. Certainly shooting the ball better would help...a lot. Based on what I saw in Puerto Rico, both Minnesota and Vanderbilt play solid defense. When a team is still finding itself offensively, facing some tough half court defense is going to complicate matters. At times this weekend UNC looked rudderless, confused and largely out of sync on offense. Roy Williams said the issue rested on too many single players trying to do it by themselves. I cannot disagree with that assessment but the bigger question is why so many individuals felt the need to do that. There is nothing wrong with a single player taking it upon himself to make a play when that is required. However if it happens too often with too many players you end up with chaos. One reason I can think this might be the case is UNC lacks the experience of playing together i.e that on the court chemistry where you know where your teammate will be when you pass the ball. We saw too many passes sail out of bounds to know these guys still lack a decent feel about each other within the flow of the offense. As a result it is really easy for individual players not to trust each other or the system with the following caveat.

UNC missed a ton of shots they should have simply made. They missed bunnies in close. They missed open threes and twos across the board. So as much as we judge the offense by the turnovers or the general ugliness evident in execution, there were times when UNC got a good shot but missed it. Take Harrison Barnes game vs Minnesota as an example. How many shots of his rimmed out or hit back iron? The stat sheet does not say but it seemed like it was possibly half. Barnes also missed putbacks at the hoop as well. In some respects the offense works well enough to get shots, they just did not fall. It is evident UNC has chances to score then it does not happen. For example, against Vanderbilt Dexter Strickland's first half steal in the corner that ended up with Justin Watts who blew the layup. The ball went the other way and with three Tar Heels behind the play Vandy hits a three. That's a five point swing. That should have been 22-20 Vandy and instead it ended up being 25-18. That one play was a microcosm of the whole weekend. UNC could make plays just not enough and when they failed the other team cashed in.

Aside from the shooting issue which hopefully comes around, it seems to me what this offense lacks is a proper focal point. I spend a good part of the weekend mulling over the 2007 team which was more talented than this group but in some ways suffered from the same lack of cohesion at times. Even with that being the case, with every team from 2006 to 2009, anyone who was breathing understood where the offense started and stopped in Chapel Hill and that was with Tyler Hansbrough. UNC had an anchor on the offense that would give consistent production, draw the focus of the opposing defense and give the offense a flow. By design Roy Williams like his offense to work inside then back out. That was the case in 2005 with Sean May and it was the case during the Hansbrough era. What made the Heels so freaking dangerous in 2008 and 2009 is everyone coalesced into established roles and got very comfortable playing with each other. It also a reached a point that while Hansbrough was still the guy, there were at least three other weapons on the floor who could do unholy things. Before they got there it was Hansbrough as the center point and everything else extended from that. It is important to remember that even in 2007 with that being the case, UNC still lost head scratchers. Most of those were games involving good opposing guard play vs the youth of Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. That team also suffered from Roy's substitution pattern and no one really had a grasp on their roles. The same is true here. The guard play is young and players are still unsure about their roles in the offense. In 2008 that was corrected by attrition and gave birth to Danny Freaking Green coming off the bench.

After four games it is clear no one has really stepped up to be the focal point of the offense, at least not yet. In that regard we are talking as much about the leadership than anything else. UNC needs an alpha dog to run the show, be the primary worry of the opposing defense and get you points when you need them in a dire way. The assumption heading into the season was Harrison Barnes would be that person. The chatter after UNC throttled UNC Greensboro in the secret scrimmage was that Tyler Zeller might be the best player on the team. I am not prepared to say that assessment about Zeller has changed but with Barnes the results have been underwhelming. Whatever the case someone, anyone whether it be Zeller or Barnes or Strickland needs to be "that guy" and let the offense flow from there. Given how Roy likes to work his offense Zeller is a logical choice to focus on the offense on. Zeller also runs the floor as well as anyone on the team and can be effective in transition. If you can get the kind of focal point production you need from Zeller, theoretically it frees up things for others. The primary issue with Zeller is the double team which bothers him to the point he cannot get the ball out. Hansbrough did not give a crap about double teams, he bulled them out of the way, got hacked and scored anyway. Zeller is not going to do that so he needs to sense it coming and either make a move to the basket or get the ball out of the block where hopefully some astute ball movement will nail the open man. After Zeller, UNC needs to have Barnes be an aggressive scorer. Not just a shooter, Barnes needs to be a threat off the dribble and shooting to give the defense pause.  Strickland needs to the freaking two guard which means hitting threes and pressuring the defense with drives. I think he has what it takes in terms of skill but he seems hesitant. Could Roy's chastisement of him last season still be causing him to hesitate out of fear he might make a mistake?

The other hangup with the offense is the absence any attack on a half court defense via guard penetration. You cannot simply pass the ball around the perimeter or dribble out there at the top of the key. At some point the defense has to be collapsed and the best way to do that is penetration. I have my doubts where Larry Drew can do that but Kendall Marshall might. The freshman PG is not quick but he is savvy, knows how to pick his spots and has great vision. At this point the rumble of support for Marshall playing more than Drew is reaching deafening levels. It is difficult to say for certain how much a difference Marshall playing more would truly make but you sort of have to get a few games under the belt to find out.

The knock on Roy is his unwillingness to make changes to the lineup. After the comments he made last night about players needing to deserve time, I would be shocked if we did not see something new for UNC Asheville.  It should be noted that Reggie Bullock often posts a solid stat line for the minutes played while also bringing a play hard attitude to the court. The issue with Bullock is defense which gets you more pine time than you'd care to have. There is also something to be said for general chemistry and cohesion to the point I wonder if giving the three freshmen a lot of run at the same time might improve some of the general execution issues. Under that scenario you need to sit either John Henson or Dexter Strickland. In that case I would sit Strickland since Henson's defense and rebounding are important. One other option is putting Justin Knox at the four since he is a more physical player who can actually make FTs. Marshall, Bullock, Barnes, Knox and Zeller would be an interesting lineup to watch for the first five minutes of the game just see what happens.

Or UNC could just shoot the ball better.