A Mid-Season Look at the Carolina Tar Heels Basketball Team

by on December 27th, 2010
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The 2012 Tar Heels are a basketball team that Carolina fans and alumni are dying to get behind. From the time John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes announced their decisions to forgo the NBA draft, NCAA title talk has proliferated Franklin Street’s watering holes. The supporting arguments behind such bold aspirations were everywhere: Point guard Kendall Marshall would be improved from a stellar freshman season. All five starters would return from a team that nearly made the Final Four. Reggie Bullock would recover from knee surgery, gain confidence and become the scoring threat and deep range shooter everyone thought he could be when he arrived in Chapel Hill; and who can forget the hype surrounding the additions of James McAdoo and P. J. Hairston, the next bus of McDonald’s All-Americans to arrive on campus. The expectations were high and the hype was higher.

What have we learned about the Heels at this point in the season? Well, they sport a 21-4 overall record and an 8-2 ACC record, which is impressive in the face of a challenging schedule and the fact that they are ‘marked men’ wherever they play given the hype and longstanding tradition of the program. The Tar Heels have demonstrated flashes of basketball brilliance (the first half at Kentucky comes to mind), but at times seem to have too much individual talent to find consistent team chemistry. Their NBA frontline of Barnes, Henson and Zeller has the ability to dominate most games, but their defense of opposing team’s guards and of the three point shot, tend to level the playing field against most quality teams. These weaknesses were exposed in losses to UNLV, Florida State, and Duke (Kentucky bucked the trend).

On the offensive end, chemistry continues to be an issue. Other than Kendall Marshall’s exceptional distribution of the ball, other Tar Heels have very few assists. Despite the individual offensive firepower capability, there is little “inside-out” play between deep threats like Barnes, Bullock and Hairston with inside threats Zeller, Henson and McAdoo. Outside of transition points, many field goals are laborious and reflect the raw talent of the shooter, rather than offensive cohesiveness and teamwork you might see from a team like Butler, which successfully ran deep into the last few NCAA tournaments without nearly the same level of raw basketball talent.

Despite their shortcomings, Carolina will surely be a force in the NCAA tournament. Say what you want about Roy Williams, but one of his strengths as a coach is the growth of his teams over the course of a season. However, I would like to offer that if the Tar Heels can refocus on three key areas outlined below, they will finish the remainder of the season strong and perhaps even reach New Orleans.

1. Improve Defensively – Seems basic enough, but I want to offer some very specific team goals. The Tar Heel guards need to improve their defense around the perimeter. There are several reasons to make this adjustment, which in some ways is counterintuitive to the way basketball players are traditionally taught to defend (stopping the drive first and emphasizing help-side defense). First, Carolina’s talent, particularly inside, is so superior to most of the competition that opposing offenses are forced to shoot perimeter jump shots (and most want to do this!). Just look at what Henson does to opposing power forwards night after night, with his amazing shot blocking capability and incredible wingspan. Most of the time, the Tar Heel players are guilty of helping off their men to double team a guarded player (athletic instincts that have served them well historically). However, the same player that the Tar Heel just double-teamed has a far lower percentage shot against a defender like Henson or Zeller than the man that he’s left wide open at the three point stripe. Again, most athletic teams double-team to generate transition baskets, but I am suggesting Carolina help less on drives and focus more on (accountable) man to man defense. Zeller and Henson can help with driving guards or perform adequately against posting big man; so the guards should commit to stopping what has become the higher percentage perimeter three-point shot (in the college game). Second, in defending the three, Carolina’s big men need to more effectively hedge on screens that occur on the perimeter. Sure, Carolina defenders can be guilty of cutting below a screen rather than fighting over the top at times, but Tar Heel big men need to properly hedge and force the guard to maneuver around them (away from the goal) allowing time for the screened defender to recover. Tyler Hansbrough was perhaps the best I’ve seen at the hedge for Carolina – let’s break out some tape for Zeller, Henson and McAdoo. 2. More Pass- The Tar Heels are blessed with one of the premier passers in the college game in Kendall Marshall, but the rest of the team tends to demonstrate a “shoot-first, pass second” mentality, which leads to more inconsistency on the offensive end of the floor. Many possessions are simply one pass and then a shot. In non-transition possessions, the Tar Heels present enough match-up problems that they should easily achieve high percentage shots by working the ball. The Tar Heels have only one other player on the team that averages more than one assist per game, Dexter Strickland, who is now out for the season with a knee injury. That is an extremely telling statistic for a team that has the kind of offensive potential at each position – assists should come easy. 3. Intensity and Killer Instinct – The Tar Heels need to play harder, particularly on defense. Watching the strong effort in games like Kentucky, Miami and NC State increases the frustration with games in which the Tar Heels play soft, without much intensity, or to the level of the competition. They seem to want to rely on their raw talent alone to win. If there is a “defense first” commitment and emphasis, this Tar Heel team would be greatly improved. If the players continue to believe outscoring the opponent is enough (think Georgia Tech), it could be an early exit in the NCAA tourney. This consistent defensive intensity is part of a larger need – the Tar Heels overall lack of killer instinct. Many see killer instinct as something you intrinsically possess. As collegiate basketball fans, we have all had our moments of doubt, questioning our beloved team’s heart and motivation, ‘how can they not be motivated – this is college basketball!?’ Well…the buck stops with the coach. I believe a good basketball coach must make up for whatever motivational or psychological shortcomings the players demonstrate before, during, or after the game. With all the hype around this year’s Tar Heel team, the goals for margin of victory (among other things) should be a key focus. The old Billy Tubbs’ offensive philosophy of ‘the only good thing about a 20 point lead is that you are closer to having a 30 point lead’…and so on. Talented players need to be taken to task as they sleep through the UNLV game defensively or watch Duke bomb away from three with their hands at their sides. Playing to the level of the competition will only lead to an early exit in the tournament. The last Tar Heel’s crowned NCAA champs showed the same lethargy at times during the season, but their talent and recommitment to killer instinct (and defense) at the start of the tournament lead to an NCAA championship. The team must find this killer instinct and Roy must find the appropriate motivation; the Heels cannot accept complacency.

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