Roy Williams met the media today and among the various topics discussed was the value of playing weaker opponents. WIlliams was asked about what the team gets from playing teams like East Tennessee State which was woefully overmatched when it came to Chapel Hill last weekend(quot
ere is something to that, there is no question about it, but you guys have heard me say before everybody wants you to play the Oklahoma City Thunder and then the Celtics and then the Lakers, who knows? Things like that, but you can’t, because you've got to have your kids get some confidence, but I’m not ashamed of our schedule. I think and I’ll emphasize the word ‘think.’ I think eight of the previous nine years we’ve been in the top-25 in the country strength of schedule. When we made the game with East Tennessee State, they had four guys that were pretty doggone important to them that were on their team at that time. I do get tired of people saying negative things about a team when they don’t know what the crap they’re talking about. Mississippi State, the same thing. When the agreement was made we didn’t know what was going on and Chaminade was in the tournament and we’ve played them before, but you can still learn some things. You really can.
"One year we played Georgia and Indiana the first two games and I lost two players for two months before I could get them to play worth a darn and it’s just because they lost so much confidence in those two games. They were borderline shooters and Hugh Durham’s team and Bobby Knight’s team backed off of them. We’d be on one end shooting and the guys defending them would be at the concession stand. One guy shot an air ball and another guy missed three in a row and we couldn’t get them to shoot the dadgum ball again until January so I know what the crap I’m talking about there, but you do need to have some games where you give them a little confidence.
"You do need some games where you challenge them. You do need some games where they’re going to play one style and you do need some games where they’re going to play another style. I do think you still get some things, but, again, when we scheduled them it was a different look that we thought we were going to get. I’m sure people that scheduled us a year ago didn’t think that Kendall Marshall would be in the NBA either, but to answer I think you can get some things that you can’t get in practice and yet we had a stretch there where it was a total mismatch and I understood that, but you also challenge them to see if they can maintain that because that’s hard to do as well."
Speaking from a blogger perspective, the "cupcake" games are some of the toughest to cover. First of all, there is almost no familiarity with the opposing team and secondly, is there anything you can really glean from the team by watching them play teams they are so much better than? I suppose winning and doing so by a large margin is instructive or at the very least meets expectation. Besides that, there is no way of knowing if Leslie McDonald scoring 24 points on UAB means he will also do the same against ACC competition.
Then again, there is a lesser chance he does so without the confidence of seeing his shot fall during any live action. That is WIlliams' ultimate point in the big takeaway from these types of games especially for a team like the 2012-13 version of the Tar Heels. Multiple players are trying to feel their way into new roles so games where they can play well and win certainly help them build confidence. In the end such games are not predictive(and neither were UNC's wins over Ohio State and Michigan State in 2010) but they can give meaningful indications to the coaches and players themselves. It is useful information on whether the lessons of practice are translating to a live game and the live game can in turn be used to teach the players.
In fact, Williams went as far as to say he think playing two exhibitions versus one exhibition and one scrimmage might be more useful. The scrimmages, which are done privately, are not always handled like regular games. There is a element of working through situations and styles of play rather than just playing a full game. Ultimately it probably does not matter. The risk of injury doesn't change and I don't think a season was made or broken by what happens in exhibitions or scrimmages. The only benefit to the exhibitions is they are live games and markedly different from practice. It helps, especially for younger teams, to go through the routine even if it comes against Division II teams.
The ideal situation is for the schedule to include plenty of challenges but also games where players can execute what they've worked on in practice. It doesn't help to have a team run into the ground with tough games but it also doesn't help to play a long list of weak teams. UNC has always done a good job balancing the two with one notable issue coming last season when the Heels played nine straight home games. Even an experienced team needs a little road work and it is possible that was a factor in the debacle at Florida State. The schedule this year is a little more what it needs to be with a road game at Texas tossed in there and a tough opponent like UNLV at the end of December. A schedule like this one with a team at this stage probably results in 2-3 losses but a decent 10-3 or 11-2 mark prior to the start of ACC play.