So where are we at?
The undercurrent that began earlier this week threatening to pull UNC down from the top tier of national title contenders down with the Dukes and Georgetowns of the world will probably get a little rougher given UNC’s sloppy one point win over now 7-9 Georgia Tech. And to be honest there is some fair criticism to be leveled in UNC’s direction, especially as it pertains to the defensive effort. Following a first half demolition of NCSU, I was hoping for more of the same when on the defensive end of the floor in Atlanta only to be sorely disappointed with numerous failures to stop the Yellow Jackets from scoring. Questions abound and the concerns are starting to come down like a steady rain on this team from an instant analysis media very much wanting to determine right now what can only be determined in April. Setting the media noise aside let me ask one simple question: How concerned am I with how UNC is playing at this point?
The answer: Not as much as probably comes out in live blogs and postgame hand wringing.
Take for example the GT game. When you add that game to the close win at Clemson and some of the other mediocre performances, it is easy to point at it like a prosecutor holding up exhibit F and scream that this is another damning piece of evidence that makes the case against UNC as a title contender. However I question to what extent the way a team plays now affect what happens in the NCAA Tournament. In one respect I think games like what happened on Wednesday and the game versus Clemson can harden a team for tough games down the road. There is also an element of ACC road games that tend to make them extremely difficult because they also have decades of rivalry attached to them in a league with a long history of excellent basketball. Winning games in the ACC is an arduous regardless of what the RPI says and I would akin UNC winning these two difficult games to the kind of challenge they will face in the NCAAs. And let us also not act as though GT is Rice. The Jackets played both Kansas and Indiana down to the wire and UNC was playing in a place they had lost four straight games at. The elements of rivalry and the way teams rise up three notches when UNC shows up has something to do with the close nature of these games. Having watched this league for almost three decades I am not sure I am ready to declare these wins as red flags for UNC’s title hopes because test like these often give a team the tools they need to win it all down the line.
Having said that, yes, the defense still looks deficient. Is this something to be concerned about now? Only if there is little improvement as we get close to the NCAA Tournament. It is well known Roy has taken the rims down and preached defense until he is blue in the face. The expectation then is the defense will click in and UNC will raise their level of play a notch. Taking Wednesday night as an example, UNC seems capable of stepping up the defensive pressure when it is needed and GT certainly walks out of there with a win if UNC did not make a concerted defensive effort at some point. It is entirely possible that this group of players may not be great natural defenders save for Marcus Ginyard and at times Ty Lawson. Tyler Hansbrough is so-so, Deon Thompson is downright soft and Alex Stepheson is good but foul prone. Wayne Ellington worked really hard on defense against GT which I think took something away from his offense while Danny Green appears to be given to lapses. The fact they may not be natural defenders does not preclude them from becoming an efficient enough defensive unit to win a national title. It does mean it will take a lot of work and that is a tough task while playing a full ACC schedule. UNC is against a clock to resolve this issue before March or at the very least get to a level they can get by on any given night. Remember that one element of winning the title is handling the bracket. UNC might get favorable matchups that make the defensive issue less daunting or they might get Memphis/Kansas/UCLA at which point it could be a nail in the coffin. Then again, matchups and single game performances dictate most of what transpires in crowning a national champion. You can just as easily have other things go wrong to cost you a title without the defense being an issue.
The ultimate problem with the hand wringing is while there are valid concerns, there is time to resolve those concerns prior to the NCAA Tournament. I also think some of the hand wringing discounts what I consider to be UNC’s greatest assets and that is their maturity, toughness and sheer will which has bred some serious poise under pressure. While critics point to the two close wins as being a sign of something gone woefully wrong I see both those games as proof that the Heels can handle the pressure situation without the panic we saw against Georgetown nearly ten months ago. I also believe that those intangible assets might help the Heels find their defense when the situation demands it. These guys seem to know what to do to win games and when the NCAA Tournament rolls around there is a great deal to be said for teams that execute under pressure. So far that trait has been more apparent on the offensive end but the GT game saw the Heels execute on defense at key moments as well.
The concerns about the defense notwithstanding, UNC has a compliment of assets that not only can compensate for the defense but also could help the players improve their defensive effort. And Roy Williams should not be overlooked either. One does not get into the Hall of Fame with an 80% winning mark without knowing a thing or two about bringing a team to the point where they can sweep the NCAA Tournament. This group of Tar Heel players know what they need to do to win games even when things are not peachy on the court. It strikes me as simplistic and short sighted to begin discounting a team’s viability in the national title race based on one issue given all the other elements involved.
Sure it is a fairly daunting issue but as they say, the night is young and the darkest hour is often right before the dawn. I am more than willing to wait for morning rather than screaming in panic during the night.