So this is what it looks like when Marcus Paige plays his worst game of the season. It looks like a 73-67 loss at Wake Forest.
It is probably a little unfair to put it all on Paige. As a team UNC didn't play well on either end. The defense continues to have issues with drives to the basket. The Demon Deacons got to the rim anytime they wanted, especially in the second half. When Wake wasn't hitting shots they were getting fouled. Even with their poor free throw shooting, still meant a significant advantage in free throw shooting. Wake Forest ended up 19-33 from the line which is still below average for them but enough when the Tar Heels didn't get to the line at their normal rate. UNC did hold Wake to 2-12 from three but the Tar Heels have seemingly found a different area on the defensive end to struggle with.
Speaking of which, the offense was generally a hot mess most of the game. UNC ended the game with 17 turnovers and a 23.5% turnover rate. Many of those miscues were of the unforced variety. The shooting was nearly as bad with the Heels at 39% on a mind blowing 75 shots. UNC had 19 more field goal attempts and three more made field goals than Wake Forest. In fact UNC dominated the backboards with a 53-34 advantage and 24-8 on the offensive glass. Conventional wisdom says that shooting poorly isn't always a bad thing since a significant offensive rebounding edge can even that out. However UNC mustered just 17 second chance points with four of those coming late in the contest when the game was essentially over.
In that respect the big men did their job both in terms of rebounding and scoring. James Michael McAdoo had 13 points on 5-10 shooting, Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto both had 12 points on a combined 12-23 shooting. That trio combined for 26 rebounds. The issue offensively was two-fold. One was the perimeter scoring simply wasn't there. Paige had his worst game of the season scoring just eight points, going 1-8 from three, committing four turnovers and eventually fouling out. Likewise Leslie McDonald had just nine points going 3-12 from the floor. The two Tar Heel guards were a combined 2-15 from three. Secondary to the poor perimeter shooting, UNC spend almost no time at the free throw line. After going 5-8 in the first half it wasn't until the final seconds of the game when McDonald was fouled attempting a three UNC shot free throws. That led to a 12 point differential at the line which more than explains the loss.
Yet with all that went wrong, UNC still had a couple of chances late but questionable decision making by the officials at one point and UNC players at another snuffed out any hope of winning the game. The first came with UNC cutting the lead to six with a little over five minutes left and McDonald grabbing a loose ball on the floor. That's when Wake's Tyler Cavanaugh decided to dive on McDonald's back to try and knock the ball loose without drawing a whistle. In the ensuing scrum, McDonald threw an elbow and was rung up for a technical. Wake Forest hit one of two free throws then a layup to push the lead back to nine. Clearly, McDonald earned his technical but the decision by the officials not to call a foul on Cavanaugh for diving on McDonald is confusing to say the least. Instead of UNC with possession and momentum down six, Wake was able to stave off the rally a little longer.
Ultimately that play didn't matter much as UNC did make another push to draw within three with 1:03 left and possession of the ball. McAdoo promptly turned the ball over only to have Tokoto steal it back and then miss a shot at point blank range that would have made it a one point game. The run out off the rebound led to a layup by Travis McKie and soft foul by Nate Britt that did nothing to prevent the shot. The completed three point play made it a two possession game with less than a minute left.
At this point, no one should be surprised by the result in this season or any season for that matter. UNC teams under Roy Williams are notorious for poor conference starts. It happened last season. It happened in 2009. In 2011 UNC squeaked out tough wins over Virginia and Virginia Tech with the Heels falling behind big to the Hokies at home before rallying to win the game. Not to mention, playing at Wake Forest is historically tough for everyone. Miami took their first ACC loss there last season after starting 13-0. Duke, while winning in Winston-Salem, has had plenty of trouble. Wake Forest deserves some credit. Games are not played in a vacuum or determined solely by what UNC does or doesn't do. The Demon Deacon team is holding teams to an eFG% of 43%. UNC's was 40% tonight meaning the struggles on the offensive end may have been in part to Wake Forest doing a solid job playing defense and doing so without fouling.
So any sort of panic is premature, especially if Joel James returns and can provide some modicum of interior defense to shut down some of the frequent drives to the basket by the opposition. This team will live and die a bit with the performance of Marcus Paige. Such is the price paid by NBA caliber guards joy riding in rental cars.