First up, is there anything good we can talk about right now?
Sure. For one, the team and the players seemed to be engaged on an emotional level. The reports from last night indicate the Tar Heel players took the loss hard. That points to a team that's heart is in the game if there are many questions about their heads being there. Unlike 2010, I don't sense it is an effort issue. It comes down to execution and *gasp* the other team making plays. That aspect gets lost in the fan's rage over his/her team losing a game. UNC played a good team in Miami last night. Even without Reggie Johnson, they are still a good team. Virginia did lost to Wake Forest after beating UNC but they are still a tough team to play, especially on the road.
As Chris pointed out on Twitter. UNC was 5-6 plays away from being 2-0 in ACC play and no one complaining as loudly as they are now. UNC was in both games, up until a series of defensive breakdowns and offensive ineptitude put the game out of reach. In that respect, it would not take much for UNC to see the season tilt back in the right direction. Yes, there are a variety of issues to address but my college basketball watching experience tells me it doesn't take much to tip the scales in a team's favor if said team is close.
So is it the defense or the offense?
Looking at KenPom UNC is 58th in defensive efficiency and 53rd in offensive efficiency. In other words, the Tar Heels are equally mediocre on both ends of the court. The question is which one can be fixed the easiest or rather which one, if it functioned better than it does right now, would get UNC over the hump quicker? Based on the past two games, I am inclined to talk about the offense. UNC's defense against Virginia wasn't horrible with a DE of 96.0, below UVA's average OE of 103.7. Against Miami, it was worse with the Hurricanes at 108.0 which is fairly close to their normal productions. There was an uneasy feeling that UNC simply couldn't stop Miami and it was only a matter of time before the Canes strung two or three possessions together on the offensive end with subsequent defensive stops to clinch the game.
In two games, UNC has come apart on both ends at the same time. Obviously you would rather play well on both ends barring that, you hope something good happens somewhere. In UNC's two ACC losses both the offense and defense went out to lunch late in the 2nd half turning a one possession deficit into a nine point loss. In an ideal world, both UNC would improve on both ends of the floor making this discussion moot. However if you had to pick one, the offense seems like the one that can be fixed more easily. Why? Because the defense, in it's current scheme under Roy Williams has always been problematic even though the stats indicate UNC's defense is not nearly as bad as people like to think they are. As it stands, right now, this is the worst defense of the Roy Williams era ranked 58th. The 2010 ended up 46th in DE and the 2004 team, at 23rd, is the only one to rank outside the top 20 in defensive efficiency. In short, UNC needs to defend better but figuring out the offense might be a simpler task.
Why? Because that plays to Roy Williams strength as a coach and the last I checked, UNC had some players who could score. The offense is also not as bad as the 2010 group which was 92nd in OE which gives some hope that perhaps it can be fixed. The problem now as in 2010 is the point guard play is suspect though I would argue Marcus Paige is not nearly as bad as some people think. He still needs to develop and in some respects he was put into a bad position because I think everyone from Roy Williams to the section 225 ushers in the Dean Dome thought Kendall Marshall would be here at least three years. Paige needed a year to learn under a point guard like Marshall and didn't get it. That's not an excuse, just an unfortunate reality everyone needs to understand. If Paige can play better it probably helps the offense as a whole but it may take more than just that.
Side Note: NC State, for the record, has the 9th best offense in the country but is 167th in defensive efficiency. That is a really bad defense but the offensive game more than makes up for it most nights.
Then what will it take to improve the offense?
I know Roy Williams doesn't change his lineup and I know he doesn't like for people to suggest he do so. However, I think there is a compelling argument for such a change. If you want the offense to improve then it probably stands to reason you should put the best offensive players on the court. Here are the facts. When UNC has Dexter Strickland, Marcus Paige, Reggie Bullock, James Michael McAdoo and Desmond Hubert on the court there is one player who is a consistent threat and really only two that demand focused offensive attention. McAdoo hasn't met expectations but some of that is due to the defensive attention he gets. Regardless of how poorly he has played, McAdoo is still going to be accounted for by an opposing team as a primary scoring option. That lineup basically includes two point guards of which only one can really shoot the ball and a center who is in no way a reliable offensive option. Defending UNC looks very easy with that lineup on the floor.
The other option is something that involves Dexter Strickland/Marcis Paige at the point, Reggie Bullock at the two, P.J. Hairston at the three, James Michael McAdoo at the four and Brice Johnson in the middle. Some variation of that would be a healthy McDonald at the two, Bullock at the three, Hairston at the four and McAdoo in the middle. You could also throw J.P. Tokoto out there at the four as long as you keep the wings filled with two shooters. Lineup combinations are not set in stone. Strickland will still end up at the two, especially if a more defensive look is needed. However, it should not be accepted any longer that Hairston is a liability on defense nor can you argue that Johnson's defensive struggles necessarily cancel out his offensive production. Granted, Williams has his own evaluations but looking at games, that is how it appears.
It comes down to how much of a step down defensively a more offensive inclined set of players is over the current lineup. If you have both Hairston and Bullock on the court with Paige that conceivably spreads the floor since all three have to be accounted for as shooters. The issue is the lack of penetration but there is a notion that UNC's best bet this season is to be more perimeter oriented. Strickland's role on the offensive end is a mystery but he still gives you solid minutes on the defensive end. Some balance of him with Paige would be required but ultimately the shooters(Bullock, Hairston, McDonald) need to be on the floor as much as possible with McAdoo, Johnson and even Tokoto.
It's not a perfect solution and like anything these is an element of tossing things against the wall to see if they stick to all of this. Changing the lineup also doesn't solve some of out of sync, execution issues that seem to crop up repeatedly. It doesn't matter who is on the court, if players go the wrong way on a set or are a half-second out of position when a pass comes, etc. If these things continue to happen the offense will continue to sputter. The more offensively inclined lineup would force the hands of the opposing defense in a way having non-threats on the court won't. If we know anything about basketball it is a team's chances of success are increased when they force the opposing team to do something expected. At least then you can devise a way to score against them until they adjust. UNC simply hasn't dictated enough what happens on the court and if they could it would be a nice move in the right direction.
And if that doesn't work and it doesn't get better?
I don't know. Deal with it?
If there is anything more annoying than watching your favorite team struggle it is listening to the fans of our favorite team act like total morons. This is not directed at anyone here and most of you should be applauded for being fairly rational after last night. However there is a contingent of UNC fans who approach this program with a massive sense of entitlement. These are the "this is Carolina basketball and THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE RAWWWRRR!!!!" fans who mainly show up on the message boards.
Get over yourself, please.
At this point in college basketball history with increased parity and attrition via the NBA Draft, the guarantees of a great season year in and year out are simply not there. I know people love to point to the Mike Krzyzewski or Tom Izzo as examples of programs that never deal with NIT seasons. That's true but those schools almost never deal with 3-4 players leaving at the same time for the NBA Draft. UNC has had that happen three times in the Roy Williams era. In 2005 it was four, in 2009 it was three(plus Danny Green who now starts in the NBA) and then four in 2012. In all three cases, the players UNC lost were huge contributors to the previous year's success. Rebuilding from that is not easy unless you pipe in top ten talent like John Caliapri or have a once in a generation player walk through the door like in 2006. And 2006 was not a team with tons of talent. They had two players that are in the NBA right now. So UNC's issues are not talent related but something else.
The point is, UNC is not entitled to anything nor is it immune to bumps in the road. This season is certainly one of them and while it might be disconcerting to have two so close together, it is beyond stupid to suggest Roy Williams retire because of it. UNC has been to five Elite Eight games in six years, won two titles since Williams returned and in all likelihood will cycle out of this current period into a better one. Clamoring for the shiny object in the room like Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart that have ZERO experience running a program like UNC and no clear indication they can recruit elite talent and mange them to success is beyond stupid. Especially when it is clear the current man occupying the head coach's seat on UNC's bench has done all the things with great success.
I know there is great frustration with how Roy Williams does things. I also know his "system" much like Dean Smith's "system" is not open for much adjustment and does not weather the wrong personnel well. However, this is one of those times where accepting a bad season or two in exchange for multiple great seasons, Final Four appearances and NCAA titles is simply going to have to be good enough.