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Weathering the Early Season Storm

Andy Lyons

It sort of feels like we go through this exercise every season. UNC loses a game or two, one of them in an inexplicable manner and there is a bit of panic that sweeps through the fan base. And as though there is snow in the forecast, Tar Heel fans run to the store for milk and bread thinking they will never be able to leave the house again. Yes, the loss to Indiana was awful. Yes, there are plenty of questions. However, is it time to worry, panic and otherwise declare this is 2010, Part II? Let's find out.

Tell me why I shouldn't worry.

Because it's November and the history of November and December games in the Roy Williams era is not necessarily the best one. That is true even in seasons where the the Tar Heels eventually bring home the title. Williams takes the long view of the season and that is even truer in a season where extensive development is required. For Williams, November/December is to the season as a whole as the ACC Tournament is to the postseason. Yes, Williams wants to win every game but he also understands it is not the end of the world if his team takes some lumps in what end up being inconsequential game.

Looking back at the previous nine seasons, there are many instances where the Tar Heels looked well below expectations but rebounded nicely to have a great season. The most recent was 2011 where the Heels were 4-3 at the end of November. That included losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt in Puerto Rico followed by a 12-point loss at Illinois. That game felt a little like this one. UNC was down seven at the half and 18 at one point in the second half before falling by a dozen. What's important about those games is none of those teams were any close to the talent level of Indiana though you could argue they were the equal of Butler.

Besides the early season yips, this is a team in need of extensive development and players figuring out their roles. The offense is disjointed at the moment and the defense lacks cohesion. When playing a team with the size and weapons Indiana has, there were bound to be issues. Also of note is the fact the script has been flipped a little with this team. It is more perimeter oriented, doesn't have the same interior strength and is not getting as much facilitation from the point guard position. In fact the offense looks as though there is no clear direction from Marcus Paige or anyone else on the floor. There is often too many settled for jumpers and forced shots by one player or another outside the flow of the offense. Fixing that aspect of it will go a long way towards improving the overall team performance.

With this type of loss, the mind easily wanders to the 2010 season. I am not sure that is appropriate(yet anyway) mainly because this team hasn't been beset by injuries nor are there players whose attitudes and commitment are in question. As far as we know, this team is engaged and the players are giving a solid effort even if it is not panning out in the execution. Yes, some additional toughness on the defensive end and in rebounding would be helpful but there is time to see development in those areas. The point here is declaring this team to be like 2010 is a tad early unless you think this game was the 2013 version of the Syracuse game from that season. Even then, remember that UNC beat both Ohio State and Michigan State early on. The point is early season games are not the best predictor of performance.

Tell me why I should worry

There is still much we don't know about this team which should mean less worrying until we can nail certain things down. However there are concerns in a couple of areas. The first is UNC has played two teams ranked in KenPom's top 100 and at some point in each game trailed by at least 29 points. In short, when UNC has played "good" teams they have been rolled. Now, falling behind by 8-15 points is a failure on one end or the other. Falling behind by 29-30 is a complete failure in every aspect of the game. Both the offense and defense have to be equally awful to allow that kind of deficit to build. Now, against Butler, UNC returned the favor in a 40-17 run that make it a six point game with a minute to go. Against Indiana there was no such run and all UNC had to show from the night was hanging tough for 16 minutes in the first half. Until UNC proves itself against a good team, some concerns are going to exist.

Also of note in looking at this team compared to 2006 or 2011 is the lack of an overarching factor that makes or breaks the season. In 2006 it was Tyler Hansbrough who dominated games and gave the Heels an established offensive option which other players could feed of. James Michael McAdoo should be that player but he hasn't panned out against good teams to this point. In 2011, it was the removal of Larry Drew and Kendall Marshall's emergence that changed the season when it was most needed. Again, there is no one that stands out as that "guy" who can push the team to a different level. Maybe it will come but absent that, there is uncertainty as to who and what UNC is as a team. Without that clear anchor or significant change, it is unclear if this team is not simply going to be an up and down squad. Also of note, is the leadership factor. 2006 had it in David Noel. 2011 had it in Kendall Marshall which is why his move to the starting lineup was more than just about what he could do with the basketball. How or when that issue is addressed is a key factor going forward, especially in the midst of adversity.

Where does that leave us?

The jury is still very much out on this team. The questions far outweigh the answers at this stage which cuts both ways. On one hand that is reason to remain calm but also reason to be concerned that some of those questions may not get answered. For now the most prominent question is whether or not any flaws currently being exhibited by this team are fatal. For example the rebounding, especially on the defensive end, has been less than stellar. How much of that improves or whether it can remains to be seen. Can UNC work out the kinks in the offense? Can the team defense find some level of cohesion? Will players find their roles and execute in them?

About the only thing we do know at this stage is James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock must be more consistent and at least a third offensive options has to step up. Going by scoring average that player could be P.J. Hairston, assuming he can stay healthy. It is also reasonable to assume that both Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson can make significant positive contributions as can Dexter Strickland. While Leslie McDonald and Joel James will also be important, it starts with Bullock, McAdoo and Hairston with the rest filling in the gaps. The problem is the offense is a bit of a mess with no flow or cohesion. Williams noted last night that players were not being selfish but rather believing they can make something happen like trying to score "25 points in one shot." In other words, there was a lot of panic when facing a tough Hoosier defense. It would also help if there is a point this team reaches where the core rotation is locked down and roles are established. That probably won't happen for a few games yet but should come if history is a teacher.

As it stands right now, this team can probably get there so out and out panic is premature. Yes, the big deficits against top 100 teams is a cause for concern. UNC showing progress against Texas and UNLV while dealing with the rest of the schedule would go a long way towards improving the outlook. Besides that, Williams has shown time and time again how far he can bring a team from November to March. While this team presents a substantial challenge for the Tar Heel head coach, there is still hope it will come together adequately enough to make some noise in a weak ACC and make the NCAA Tournament.

So step away from the ledge, come down off the bridge and see how the next month goes before pronouncing anything about this team.