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Evaluating UNC at the Midway Point

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So here we are at roughly the halfway point of UNC's 2011-12 season. The Heels have finished the non-conference schedule and now embark on a fun filled 16-game odyssey through the ACC. Now is as good a time as any to take stock of the players and the team. If you want a statistical view of UNC through 15 games be sure to check out the cumlative plus/minus stats over at Tobacco Road Blues. Now onto the evaluations.

Harrison Barnes: 17.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.0 spg, FG: 48.9%, 3P: 48%, FT: 72%

What went well: Barnes once again entered this season with much the same pressure he faced during his freshman year. He was named preseason All-American, a national player of the year canidate, all-ACC and ACC player of the year. Prior to the Texas game, you would get some argument that Barnes wasn't really living up the hype. Granted his numbers were all vastly improved over last season, including better shooting across the board. However a pair of nine point outings on 8-24 shooting conjure memories of last season when it appeared Barnes simply wasn't playing up to his potential. Then came the Texas game where Barnes went for 26 points and 10 rebounds. This was followed up by two solid outings against Elon and Monmouth where Barnes showed he could score in a variety of ways. By and large, Barnes is shooting and scoring as well as one could expect. His play in the final three non-conference games could be taken as a sign he is ramping his game up to a high level.

Areas to improve: Ballhandling and rebounding are the two that stick out the most. Barnes is still a little turnover prone taking the ball into the lane against quality defensive team. His handle is not as tight as it needs to be and against better teams than the ones UNC has been facing, it could lead to turnovers. Barnes also needs to be better on the backboards, especially on the defensive end. Barnes DR% is 9.7% which is down from 12.8% last season. Some of that may be mitigated by Tyler Zeller being 3% better in his DR% from last season but still, Barnes can and should be more effective on the defensive glass.

John Henson: 15.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 3.2 bpg, FG: 56% FT: 48%

What went well: Henson surprised most everyone by becoming an effective contributor on the offensive end to go along with his stellar rebounding and shot blocking. Prior to the season, Henson was being tapped ahead of Tyler Zeller on my lists which admittedly irked us here at THF. As it turns out, those choices may have been justified but not for the reasons originally though. Henson's offensive game improved dramatically to include a turnaround jumper to compliment his moves to the basket. While we all pegged Henson to be a double-double player, the 15.0 ppg is 3-4 points higher on average than most thought he would produce.

Areas to improve: The free throw shooting continues to be a bugaboo for Henson. The hope after last season's late streak of good FT shooting was Henson would build on that or at the very least not regress back to shooting FTs in the upper 40% range. That has turned out to be the case which creates a problem in end of game situations, especially considering Henson is now a valuable offensive asset. Last year, it was easier to go offense/defense with Henson because it did not necessarily take away a key offensive weapon. Now that Henson is the second leading scorer on the team, leaving him in the game is extremely important. The free throw shooting need to improve as to not make him a liability.

Tyler Zeller: 13.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.1 spg, FG: 52% FT: 76%

What went well: There is a temptation to look at Zeller's season so far and think that maybe it has not gone that well as it compares to last season. Zeller's overall offensive numbers are down from 2010-11 where he averaged 15.7 ppg and shot 54% from the floor. The former can be explained by increased production from both Barnes and Henson, the latter is a product of Zeller simply having some shots that should go down not doing so. There were also the issues in earlier games this season of Zeller being able to hold onto the basketball, one such instance which happened on the last possession of the Kentucky game. Despite the somewhat minor downturn in Zeller's shooting he is rebounding the ball better. Zeller is averaging almost two rebounds per game more than last season. His DR% has gone from 15.3% in 2011 to 18.4% this season while his OR% is up to 14.8% from 10.8% last season. Just to give an indication of what kind of improvement the OR% is, Zeller was 235th last season he is now 44th. Zeller's FT shooting has been steady at 76% continuing to make getting the ball to him on the interior a must even if it means getting him to the FT line.

Areas to improve: Zeller could stand to make a few more shots and be tougher with the basketball. There will be some stiff competition for the Heels in terms of interior defenses in ACC play and in other cases the use of double teams will increase. Zeller needs to be both strong with the basketball to prevent turnovers and smart in responding to double teams. Zeller is exceptionally dangerous if he can hit his shot consistently and take care of the basketball.

Kendall Marshall: 5.3 ppg, 10.0 apg, A/TO: 4.1, FG: 41% FT: 59%, 3P: 30%

What went well: Marshall basically picked up where he left off last season in terms of running the Tar Heel offense. The improvement overall of UNC's offense over last season has permitted Marshall to really crank up the assist machine which has the sophomore averaging a gaudy 10.0 apg. The UNC record for assist average in a season is 8.1 set by Ed Cota in 2000. That was also the same season Cota set the record for total assists with 284 in 35 games. Marshall currently has 150 through 15 games.  If Marshall averages 8.4 apg over the ACC schedule he will break Cota's total assist mark four games early. If Marshall maintains the current average(something I am not sure is likely) then he will break the mark in 28-29 games. Whatever the case, chances are Cota's mark will fall and Marshall could become the first Tar Heel ever to record 300 assists in one season.

Areas to improve: Defense and shooting. Marshall continues to be a liability on defense versus quicker guards. If UNC faces a team with only one quality guard, they can get by with Dexter Strickland doing the bulk of the heavy lifting on defense. In a situation where Strickland might be needed to check the opposing teams wing guard, Marshall's defense might hurt UNC, especially with penetration collapsing the defense and opening up three point shooters. Marshall is never going to get quicker which means he has to be smart in how he plays defense. On the offensive side, Marshall doesn't need to put up more points as a function of UNC's offense but he needs to show he can do it or else teams will do what Duke did last season in first game and make Marshall beat them with his shot. Marshall's three point shooting is down from last year even though he is on pace for the same number of attempts. He needs to be able to make an opposing defender pay for laying off him to guard the pass. If he can do that consistently it gives UNC more spacing in the half court and more lanes for Marshall to do what he does best. Marshall's FT shooting is a paltry 59% which should and needs to be about 10-15% higher. You are playing with proverbial fire when the primary ballhandler on the team is a FT liability at the end of games.

Dexter Strickland: 7.9 ppg, 2.1 apg, 2.1 rpg, 1.3 spg FG: 56%, FT: 65%

What went well: The question heading into this season is whether Strickland could continue to play in the role he ultimately carved out for himself during the final weeks of the 2011 season. The answer is a resounding yes. Strickland has consistently been the team's best perimeter defender, done an outstanding job running the point guard with Marshall on the bench and making the most of his offensive opportunities. Strickland has consistently pushed the ball in transition, gotten easy baskets on the fast break and hit a number of shots inside the three point arc. What he hasn't done is attempted three pointers(one attempt in 15 games) or tried to do more than he is capable on the offensive end.

Areas to improve: Strangely enough, there isn't much outside of the 65% FT shooting which needs to be higher since, like Marshall, Strickland is a primary ballhandler. Strickland is fulfulling his role set out for him on both ends of the floor. I know there is a contingent of UNC fans who find Strickland offense to be so limited they think it means he should be relegated to the bench but everyone knows that is a pointless discussion. Overall, it would be nice if Strickland were averaging more points per game seeing UNC only has three double figure scorers but since his time is split with Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and playing the point in an offense more focused on the frontline, it may not matter.

Reggie Bullock: 9.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, FG: 49%, FT: 77%, 3P: 41%

What went well: Now healthy after struggling with a knee injury last season that ultimately required surgery, Bullock has been who everyone thought he would be when he came to Chapel Hill. The contrast between Bullock of 2011 and now is stark. The Kinston sophomore has shown more athleticism, has hit three point shots at a rate of 41% and been the spark off the bench not seen since Danny Freaking Green was dancing to Jump Around. Bullock's numbers, in only 18.1 mpg, have been outstanding. Bullock has the highest offensive efficiency on the team at 127.8 while making 65% of his two point attempts. Bullock has been so good Roy Williams has made liberal use of him in the lineup against tougher competition. Bullock has not disappointed so far this season and his three point shooting will be a huge key going forward.

Areas to improve: Like Strickland, Bullock has fulfilled his role extremely well. He has performed exceptionally well coming off the bench and hit key three pointers, such as the one late against Kentucky, to augment UNC's offensive attack. Bullock still need to improve on the defensive end though it should be noted he has probably been better on that end than expected which fuels some of the Strickland-Bullock lineup angst UNC fans are experiencing. The only other point of concern is since this is Bullock's first full season there is still concern for the knee and his overall conditioning as we move towards the end of the season.

P.J. Hairston: 8.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg, FG: 37%, FT: 83%, 3P: 37%

What went well: Heading into this season we knew Hairston could shoot the ball the question was would it translate at the college levels to pay immediate dividends. It certainly has to the tune of 37% shooting from beyond the arc. That includes a recent stretch of 3-20 shooting following the UK game before Hairston went 4-9 versus Monmouth to ring in the New Year. Hairston, along with Bullock and Barnes, gives UNC three legitimate perimeter threats they did not have a year ago which is part of the reason why the offense has been much improved over last season.

Areas to improve: Hairston's defense can use some work which is not unusual for a freshman. There is also the issue of his two point shooting which is also 37%(9-24). Hairston is not necessarily being asked to be a scorer in terms of putting the ball on the floor or creating his own shot. However, he is more than capable of hitting shots inside the arc and should have that as a reliable option as well as the three point shot. Like many freshman, Hairston could stand to play with a little more control at times. He is prone to commit charging fouls in certain situations and in fact had a couple versus Elon that were ones he should have avoided.

James Michael McAdoo: 6.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, FG: 42%, FT: 60%

What went well: Of all the players we will look at here, McAdoo is the only one I would lean towards saying "not much." I say lean towards because I am hard pressed to put too much on a freshman big man who is a 14 mpg bench player whose impact will be limited. Still, Hairston is in much the same boat and he has made a positive impact off the bench in several games. For McAdoo, it has been tougher sledding. That probably has something to do with the position. Hairston has the straightforward role of being a perimeter gunner. McAdoo is playing a position that tends to be a focal point of the Tar Heel offense as such, he does get his share of touches which he really has not converted at nearly the rate one would hope. In short, McAdoo brings a ton of energy to the game. I love his assertiveness, his skill set, the way he runs the floor and even his ballhandling in the open court which is very good for a player his size. The key issue is McAdoo has struggled holding onto the ball and finishing shots at point blank range. In some ways he is frustrating to watch not for his effort but because he just misses so many layups or short jumpers. McAdoo looks like a player just in the cusp of being really productive if he could get a few more of his shots around the basket to fall. Since that is the case, I do think there will be a game or games later in the season where McAdoo comes up big(like Deon Thompson versus Georgetown in 2007.)

Areas to improve: The two foremost are catching the basketball and scoring around the basket. If McAdoo can figure both of those out with regularity he will be where this team needs him to be. No one is asking McAdoo to be a superstar. UNC has three NBA Draft picks ahead of McAdoo who will one day be one himself. McAdoo only needs to make the most of his opportunities in spelling the Big Three and as I noted above, it feels like he is a few more made baskets away from doing just that. With 60% free throw shooting I guess it goes without saying he needs to improve that area but there are plenty of signs he has already done so. After starting the season 9-20 through the UK game, McAdoo has been 20-28 since.

Overall Team Performance: 88.0 ppg, 47 rpg, 20 apg, FG: 48%, FT: 64%, 3P: 39%

What went well: First of all, the Heels are 13-2 with wins over some good teams such as Michigan St., Wisconsin and Texas. The two losses were also against good teams in Kentucky and UNLV. Outside of a bad half versus the Running Rebels in Las Vegas and some uninspired basketball against some uninspired opponents this team appears to be on the right track. As with all Roy Williams coached teams at UNC, there is a definitive progression towards playing the best basketball in March/April with a relatively well rested team. That is why the rotation is what it is early in the season because Roy understands the tempo his teams run means flogging players for over 30 minutes per night is a recipe for disaster. As such, the minutes for the starters have been checked when necessary which may have resulted in a few ragged team performances along the way. This team has also been accused of not really having a killer instinct which I think is really unproven at this point. The games against bona fide national contenders has seen the Heels play at a high level. Even contests against teams like Texas who are good but probably not going to the Final Four saw UNC step up the level of play almost as to make a point. In short the teams looks like it is heading in the right direction. Compared the last year the offense has come around from being 38th nationally in offensive efficiency back to a familiar spot in the top ten. The defense which was top ten a year ago is currently 12th but I expect will ultimately move back up. The ratings seem to confirm that after two years of UNC basketball struggling on one or both ends of the floor, the Heels are playing efficient basketball on offense and defense.

Areas to improve: While I think the whole "killer instinct" meme might be a tad overblown or at the very least premature, I do think this team could stand to play with more of an edge going forward. As I have said many times, the level of competition or time of year often dictates how this team(and quite frankly any of Roy's UNC teams) approach a given game. You will not see this team go out there and play Elon with the same kind of desire they will show when Duke or NC State or anyone else of consequence suits up on the other end. However, I do think it bears watching to some extent though I continue to think the Texas game was UNC's signal to the world of their intentions to step up the level of play. That doesn't mean there won't be letdowns or bad games, just that we are entering the point of the season where every game does truly matter. In basketball terms, free throw shooting is at the top of the list of areas needing to be worked on though I think the starters have done a decent job of late with free throws with some of the late game bench/Real Blue Steel handiwork dragging on the numbers a bit. Defensive rebounding is also an area UNC needs to be a bit more focused on. There is no question UNC does a great job on the defensive end with the only discernible problem being not closing the deal by controlling the boards.

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Taking the big picture view of UNC, the players and the team development is in the right place for this portion of the season. My expectation is this team will continue to improve and the version we find ourselves watching four-six-eight weeks from now will be different than the one we have seen so far. The one X factor yet to be answered is if Leslie McDonald will return for this season which is apparently still a point of debate. If that happens, it could have an impact but for now the team on the floor is on course and perfectly capable of cutting down the nets in April.