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Tar Heel Hangover: Frustration

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A little January anger to heat things up.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our Monday morning opportunity to review last week’s games, second guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

Honestly, I have no idea what to think of last week’s action. A great road win against a top 15 team in NC State seemed to have the season setting up perfectly. Then came Saturday when only one team showed up: Louisville. Thinking about that game has driven me to focus for the last 36 hours on not writing an angry article. I have failed.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

I wrote last week that, “The challenge for Coach Williams will be maintaining that level of intensity and keeping the past few games in perspective.” This followed the dominant road win against Pitt and a couple of home wins against mid-majors. Then came the NC State game and the team started to resemble a true title contender.

Saturday, it looked like they just believed if they walked out on the court, they would win. It is very difficult to turn on the intensity mid-game when there is not much fire at the opening tip. A ton of missed shots and some early Coby White foul trouble had the entire offense out of sync. The game was never close and was borderline, or totally, embarrassing.

Now, I try to keep a fairly even perspective and am not one to overreact to a single game, but this one was absolutely devastating. I have no idea what direction this team is going now. It was the worst home loss ever under Roy Williams. There are just so many questions at this point:

  1. When is the real Nassir Little going to show up? 19 minutes a game with a mere 9.7 points and 4.3 rebounds. The numbers have been worse as of late. 5 of 17 from the field in three conference games for a combined 14 points. Even more concerning, he is starting to look like a liability on both ends of the floor. On defense, he is consistently unable to stay in front of his man on dribble penetration. On offense, the ball movement stagnates when he comes in as every possession turns into an odd one-man show. He has also only pulled down a combined 12 rebounds in those three games. Little needs a break out game soon.
  2. When is the real Kenny Williams going to show up? Williams has been solid on the defensive end of the floor but his shot has largely left him this year. Last year Williams was over 40% from three. This year, he is under 26%. I have not identified any mechanical issue, so this really appears to be a confidence problem (perhaps precisely what is plaguing Little). Williams is compensating by putting the ball on the floor more and taking his game mid-range and to the hoop. 27 points in the last two games has been a step in the right direction but without the threat of hitting from deep, his drives are going to be in traffic.
  3. Does Carolina have a point guard that can lead the team? Coby White has been very good this year and is scoring at a high clip, but his outside shooting numbers are falling off the page. 5 for 18 in conference play. 1 for 8 in the last two games. He leads the team with 44 turnovers including 14 in three conference games. Early fouls hampered his aggressiveness Saturday, but his offense is not clicking like it was early in the year. Seventh Woods has fallen off as well. He has 2 total assists in conference play.
  4. Can Luke Maye regain his scoring touch from deep? Yet another player in a slump from deep, Maye’s three-point shooting percentage is down 10 percentage points from last year (33% this year, 43% last year, 40% in 2016-17). 4 for 13 in conference play. Maye continues to be a workhorse on the glass but the offense really hums when he hits shots from outside the arc.
  5. Can this team defend with enough intensity on a consistent basis to win difficult games? With all of the offensive weapons on the team, the defense does not have to be in the top 10 in the country. Barely hanging in the top 50 is not good. The defense has to be serviceable enough to survive poor shooting games like Saturday, or against Michigan. There will be off nights in March when the ball is just not going through the basket. Those are the times when stops are needed to jump start the transition game and manufacture points.
  6. What other levers does Coach Williams have left to pull? He has held the team at halftime. He has benched starters mid-game and pulled players for poor performances. He has yelled and pleaded from the sidelines. What remains to be done? Perhaps it is a starting lineup change that could spark Little, although the team has been consistently better when Garrison Brooks is on the floor. Perhaps it is a change to the practice routine that will wake up the squad. Maybe a mid-game lineup that brings a spark (I still like White, Maye, Cameron Johnson, Little, and Leaky Black). Louisville was just one bad game, but there are causes for concern that have to be addressed soon.
  7. One final point of frustration that has heated to the boiling point over the last several weeks: when did the four letter network come to stand for d-u-k-e? One would think from casual internet browsing and the occasional live game viewing that there is really only one team in all of college basketball. It has gotten so bad that I do not even peruse the site anymore. It’s nauseating. There is no question that the Blue Devils are good. But let’s not act like everyone else, including a Virginia team that has not lost yet, should just bow down and hand them the trophy. Of course, the sports leader does not have to worry about eating crow when the Devils lose in the tournament, because they don’t carry those games.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

I wrote last week that fans would know a lot more about this version of the Tar Heels after the games against State and Louisville. I was wrong. I am probably more confused and the future is more cloudy than it was a week ago. This team can be absolutely brilliant and can also sleepwalk through the season. On a side note, it is really a statement about the impact of the home decimation to the Cardinals that a tremendous road victory against NC State has already been forgotten.

This week, the Heels welcome Notre Dame to Chapel Hill on Tuesday and travel to Coral Gables on Saturday. While there are no easy games in the ACC, both of these should be winnable contests.

Final Thoughts

There is just not a lot of time for soul-searching once conference play begins. Will the game Saturday prove to be a turning point on the year or an omen of things to come? What changes with Coach Williams implement to spark the team? Who is going to step up and be the leader on the court?

This feels like a lot of unanswered questions for mid-January.