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UNC Basketball: Luke Maye and the trouble of the double team

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Everyone is aware of Luke Maye's breakout campaign this year. That includes opposing defenses.

Wake Forest v North Carolina Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

It's not the aggressiveness. That's still there. It's certainly not the effort, which you can bet your house on. He's still crashing the boards with the same intensity. It's not even the body language, which remains unflappable no matter what the scoreboard or stat line says.

But Luke Maye is struggling as of late. His red-hot start to the season has given way to some very human performances over the last three weeks. In Carolina's last five games, he has shot worse than 50% from the floor each time. He's reached double figures in three of those contests, but has taken a lot of shots to do so, needing 16, 18, and 14 attempts to score 17, 17, and 14 respectively. In Carolina's three losses in that stretch he has been a combined 12-40 (30%) from the field.

But even more noticeable than the numbers is the eye test. His shots are either forced or overly hesitant. He frequently tries to do too much himself, rather than taking the opportunities the game gives him. Take for instance the play in the 2nd half yesterday when he dribbled off his foot trying to force his way through traffic, completely missing a wide open Sterling Manley under the hoop. November Luke makes that pass. January Luke didn't see it.

Luke Maye is off his game at the moment and it's not hard to see why: He's been knocked off it. Yesterday's game at Virginia was the clearest example of this. The Wahoos had the perfect two-part gameplan: 1) Double Maye every time he got the ball and 2) Press high against the Carolina guards and throw them out of their offense. Part 2 is made possible by Part 1. With Maye neutralized, the Virginia guards could chase Berry, Williams, Pinson, and Johnson with impunity, hounding Carolina into 19 turnovers and holding them to 49 points.

We've all rejoiced over the last few months at Luke's incredible leap into stardom, and rightly so; it's a testament to his character and work ethic. But when you're suddenly in the unfamiliar position of stardom you have to suddenly deal with the challenges that stardom brings. Stars get doubled. And Luke looks absolutely lost against the double team. Time and again these last few weeks defenders have trapped him on the block or wing and forced him to turn his back, pick up his dribble, and search desperately for a teammate to break for the ball and rescue the possession.

Luke Maye is not a bad passer. In the early stretches of the season, when his shot was dropping, one of his best plays was to put the ball on the deck against an overcommitted defender, draw the double team, and lay off a great bounce pass to the open man for an easy score. But there is a world of difference between drawing a double team and receiving one. Luke can handle the first beautifully. The second? Not so much.

It's not his fault: Who on earth would have predicted this summer that Luke Maye would be the target of double teams on the road at Virginia? Highly touted recruits and established stars are used to being the focus of opposing defensive game plans and develop their game accordingly. Luke is experiencing this for the first time. He may be a junior and a veteran of two Final Fours, but as far as being the primary target of defenses he has no more experience than Brandon Huffman.

A number of things need to happen for Maye and the Heels to be able to overcome this challenge. First, there needs to be more contribution from the other role players: As we learned this week, Joel Berry heroics and the Kenny Williams First-Half Show aren't enough to beat quality ACC opponents on the road. More options means less double teams. Second, the Heels need to commit to setting screens to free Maye up for his shot, particularly early in the game to get him into a rhythm. Thirdly, UNC needs to improve its ball movement. Double teams die at the hands of crisp passing by all five players.

But above all, Luke just has to get used to it. He has to remain calm when the double comes and locate the open man more quickly. He can't pick up his dribble before he has a option to pass to. He can't try to attack defenses the way he did in November because defenses aren't playing him the way they did in November. The word is out: He's a player to be dealt with. And defenses are beginning to deal with him.

This is the kind of skill that is only developed with practice and learning from experience. Fortunately for all of us, that's Luke Maye's specialty.