CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – North Carolina certainly had some question marks entering the season. Chances are, though, not many people imagined the Tar Heels would be 3-9 in the ACC with four games to go in the regular season. Not many imagined that Roy Williams would be experiencing what he called “the most frustrating time I’ve ever had in coaching, there’s no question about that.”
North Carolina has seven McDonald’s All-Americans on its roster, so there’s no shortage of talent despite heavy personnel losses from last season’s national championship team. But talent alone doesn’t win anything, and this team is clearly lacking in several areas. That was apparent once again in the Tar Heels’ 71-67 loss at Boston College on Saturday, their ninth in 11 games.
The first problem is point guard play. Larry Drew II isn’t his dad, who spent 11 years in the NBA. He’s a nice point guard, but not one you win a national championship with and he’s certainly not a replacement for Ty Lawson in a running offense. With Lawson, the Heels could run even on made baskets; with Drew, that’s rarely possible. His assist and turnover numbers are nice, and he shoots over 40 percent from long range, but those numbers are not only deceiving, but they’re all down in ACC play just like the team’s success.
While Dexter Strickland has the athleticism to be the running point guard, he lacks the skills to play the position. He’s emerged as a player who Williams has to have in the game because he gives great effort, but he’s not a point guard.
The second problem is that this team gives the ball away. North Carolina averages nearly 16 turnovers per game and has just five more assists than turnovers on the season. Perhaps more telling is that they have a negative turnover margin for the season and have had more turnovers than assists in nine of the 12 ACC games. On Saturday, they turned it over 11 times, which is below their average, but Boston College made them hurt as they scored 16 points off them.
Another important problem is shooting, something Williams was concerned about before the season. This team lacks a sniper from long range, something they had in bunches with Wayne Ellington as well as Danny Green and Lawson. Drew shoots just over 40 percent and Will Graves about 38, but no one else on the team will strike fear in opposing defenses with their jump shot.
The next problem is mental toughness, and that was shown on several occasions on Saturday. Although North Carolina started the season well and looked like it would be another NCAA Tournament season in Chapel Hill, when the going has gotten tough, the Heels have been stopped. Nowhere was this more evident than when Boston College would stop a run the Tar Heels made and it would do more than just slow the momentum. Instead, almost every time it seemed to demoralize the Tar Heels.
“It seems like when we scored we were just… it was like we would kind of lose hope,” said Drew. “We just have to understand that if a team goes on a run, that doesn’t mean that we stop playing hard and start giving up.”
Added Tyler Zeller, who returned after a stress fracture in his right foot sidelined him for over a month: “That’s what good teams do. They know how to get momentum, they know how to counter momentum, and they don’t get flustered when the other team has the momentum.”
Williams has seen this very clearly with his team since about the time the calendar rolled over to 2010. He sees that the confidence with this team is nothing like what it was earlier in the season, another problem they have.
“College of Charleston and Clemson, in a short period of time, shook us a little bit,” said Williams. “We have never reacted in a positive way and gotten tougher with it since then. We will make some runs in a game, and then we turn around and allow the other team to make some runs.”
Williams said he didn’t think the Tar Heels played with the necessary sense of urgency in the first half on Saturday. They started well in the second half, but just like with the season, things got a little tough and the Tar Heels didn’t get going. They have been hit hard by injuries that have led to seven players, including Zeller and Ed Davis, missing games, and senior Marcus Ginyard looks nothing like a player who was once very highly recruited. But Williams, who has also been hit by the injury bug with a torn labrum in his left shoulder that required surgery in November, knows his team is too talented to have a 3-9 ACC record, the most ACC losses they have had since 2002-03. He also knows that the talent doesn’t matter as much as how the team plays.
“You’ve got to freakin’ play,” Williams said. “If my back’s against the wall and I’m getting my tail kicked, I’m going to fight you until I die.”
Right now, this team, talented though they are, isn’t doing that.
Heading into the weekend, there was a feeling within the team that the Tar Heels were poised to go on a run to end the season. Williams felt that an 8-8 ACC record, combined with their wins over Ohio State and Michigan State in non-conference, would get them in the NCAA Tournament. If they were to run the table, they would pick up wins over Florida State and at Wake Forest and Duke, so there would seemingly be plenty of quality wins. But that won’t happen now.
“I thought we were going to win today and get on a great run and we’d be in the NCAA Tournament,” said Williams. “Now I’ve got to readjust and see if we can get it done by starting with the next game.”
Williams isn’t mailing it in at all for this season, but his frustration seems likely to continue unless the Tar Heels improve in a number of areas. The question marks that were there before the season remain, and new ones have emerged, but few if any thought it would lead to the Tar Heels being where they are right now.