After a roller coaster ride UNC stands at 8-3 with some incredible wins and so equally puzzling losses. Here are five random thoughts on this team heading into a short holiday break.
1. The ceiling and basement for this team are much farther apart than anyone could possibly imagine
At this stage, UNC is obviously capable of playing with any team in the country and winning. They are also just as capable of playing teams of less caliber and losing even at home. The Tar Heels have collected wins over Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky otherwise known as 3/4 of many people's preseason Final Four picks. These three teams started the season in the top three. At the same time losses to Belmont, UAB and Texas happened to go along with struggling to beat Holy Cross and Davidson. Whatever mojo Roy Williams uses when the Tar Heels play against high caliber teams seems to disappear when a mid-major comes to town.
The real question about the "up and down" nature of this team is whether or not it stems from a lack of focus/effort, inexperience or some fundamental issues on either end of the floor(such as free throw shooting.) The answer is probably a little bit of everything. Young teams tend to be streaky in terms of overall play and how they might approach the game. This team also doesn't have a huge margin of error not to mention a suspect offense due to limited options and poor free throw shooting. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how this team responds once conference play begins and all the games are "big."
2. The free throw shooting will probably continue to be an issue
Here is the cold, hard truth. After eleven games, it is pretty clear what this team is in terms of free throw shooting. There is the chance it improves come but presently sitting at 61% as a team points to this being the established pattern. One important factor in the team's overall percentages is the lack of wing depth. Marcus Paige is the only truly reliable free throw shooter. Nate Britt has shown he can hit them at times but for the season is at 66%. Leslie McDonald has just returned but has not come anywhere near the 80% he shot from the line a season ago. If P.J. Hairston were eligible he would not only bring a solid free throw shooter to the floor but likely get multiple opportunities at the line. Wing players are generally shooters and help you at the free throw line. That is not the case this season for UNC.
Not to put all the pressure on one or two players but the bulk of the bad free throw shooting comes down to James Michael McAdoo and J.P. Tokoto. McAdoo is 37th in the country in free throw rate. Since there are 351 Division 1 basketball teams with 13 scholarships each. A nice general estimate says there are over 4000 players in Division 1 and McAdoo goes to the line more than all but 36 of them. McAdoo is the microcosm of the team as a whole. He gets to the line frequently but misses frequently resulting in too many empty possessions and not enough offensive production. Likewise Tokoto, with his athleticism, is in a position to get fouled a lot but being a 44% free throw shooter actually makes him being aggressive a liability.
The most frustrating aspect of UNC's free throw woes is when they are bad at the line, they are really bad at the line. Two of the three losses can be hung primarily on a failure to capitalize at the line. Obviously it would be nice if it doesn't happen again but the concern is always present that it will.
3. Can someone please step up at center?
Looking at the personnel on this team, it is clear there are some solid players who can play their position sufficiently such as Paige, Tokoto and McAdoo. Then there are positions where UNC and Roy Williams is relying on multiple players to provide different strengths. The center position is one such spot where UNC doesn't have just one player who operate at a high enough level in all areas to provide 30 minutes of solid play. Joel James, before his MCL injury, was the starter providing UNC with some decent rebounding, size and was the best defensive option available. However James' offensive game is still very raw. There are glimpses but not nearly enough for him to be "the guy." Then there is Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks who provide quality offensive possessions but are liabilities on defense. Johnson has struggled with fouling, disqualifying himself on Saturday night with a foul 15 feet from the basket. Meeks appears to be a step slow and is scored on far too often(sometimes by smaller players) in one-on-one matchups in the post. His defense was such a concern Roy Williams went offense/defense with Meeks and Jackson Simmons.
All of this points to a rotation where Williams has to figure out, on a game-by-game basis, which player can be most effective at center. It is pretty much a constant game of rotating players in and out based on what part of their respective skill set you need the most. Then there are factors like Johnson's foul issues or Meeks' conditioning that curtail when or how long a certain player might be on the court. This makes for a lot of button pushing for Williams and more experimentation on the fly that he probably feels comfortable with in hopes of maximizing his personnel.
By the time UNC rolls into conference play, the rotation should theoretically tighten up. However if no one player distinguishes himself as a legitimate option on both ends of the floor, the carousel of big men will continue.
4. Marcus Paige continues to play too many minutes
As the old saying goes, there is no rest for the weary. Paige has been on the court, seemingly non-stop since the season opened. As UNC's best offensive option and the clear team leader, every game has felt like it needed Paige to be huge for UNC to win. Paige is averaging 36.1 mpg. His season low for minutes was 31 versus UNCG and before that 32 against Oakland. In the other nine games Paige has played at least 35 minutes and in the Saturday overtime win over Davidson he registered 41. Given the tempo UNC plays at and the amount of load Paige is carrying offensively, there is real concern the sophomore guard will begin to wear down as the season moves into the crucial February/March time frame.
The good news is Paige is well-conditioned and the addition of weight to his frame should make enduring the grind of the season somewhat easier to endure. Still, everyone has limits and even really good college players reach a point in the season where they potentially hit a wall. It will be critical for Roy Williams to do as much as possible to ensure that doesn't happen whether that be stealing minutes in a game or reducing his practice load. Another method would be UNC winning some games in much easier fashion than they have been. The return of Leslie McDonald should also help to some extent as well.
5. The home court advantage hasn't really been there
UNC is 8-3 overall with two of those losses coming at home. In two other home games UNC struggled against Holy Cross and needed overtime to dispatch Davidson. UNC's free throw shooting has been more of an issue at home than it has been away from the Dean Dome. Three of UNC's four worst games, from a points surrendered perspective have come at home. The Tar Heels have given up more 80 or more points four times this season, three of those have happened at home. Whatever the reason, the defense and free throw shooting seem to suffer at home versus on the road.
One possibility is UNC has played more games at home than on the road so there has been more opportunity for the fickle nature of this team to present itself. There are also potential questions of complacency at home, not being able to feed off the crowd and taking a team's best shot when they come into the building. On one level it is a bit concerning that opposing teams don't seem to be overly intimidated by playing UNC but that could simply mean such things are a bit overwrought. The play of the team has far more to do with the where the game is played with the home crowd being a factor in a close game. UNC probably benefited from it versus Davidson but maybe not against Belmont.
When it comes to ACC play, protecting your home court is vital. Road wins in conference play will be hard to come by, especially with UNC playing at Wake Forest, Syracuse, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, FSU, NC State, Virginia Tech and Duke. On the surface, grabbing a win in any of those games will be a tough task meaning the Tar Heels need to do their level best to win at the Dean Dome.