Making Sense of UNC Right Now

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.

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20 Responses to Making Sense of UNC Right Now

  1. C. Michael says:

    Isn’t it amazing that the pundits biggest ammunition against UNC’s title chances are 2 close WINS, on the road, in the ACC?? Because, you know, there are no losses…

    I don’t no about you all, but I am starting to get tired of the societal trend to try and undercut the accomplishments of those who succeed, Everyone did it with the Patriots this year, too. Obviously, no team is perfect, by why can’t we just enjoy the run? After all, its just sports.

  2. MDtarheelfan says:

    Well written THF. We have the talent and the coach to win it all. Our play has not always been perfect but we have made the shots and played the D to win every game. These close games are going to help come tournament time. Its not like UNC is opening big leads and losing them and then having to pull out in the end. Both Clemson and GT played well. I don;t think we were that great against State. State played horrible the first half. Some can argue that UNC does not deserve to be ranked number 1, but they do deserve top 4. They will be number 1 till they lose. No one will change that.

  3. Joe says:

    Great article and comments…its interesting that although the 2005 team just kept winning, the media crowed that they weren’t a ‘team’. Although the defense has been suspect at times, this team keeps winning and I am enjoying the ride…I wonder when the media campaign on how dysfunctional this group is will start.

  4. Tar Heel Fan says:

    They also said, based on the losses at Wake and Duke that they were unable to win bigs games away from Chapel Hill.

    I also would have loved to see what kind of treatment the 1993 would have gotten after they needed a furious rally to beat FSU, then lost by 26 at unranked Wake and by 14 at Duke. Granted they had a one point loss to Michigan in Dec, a four point win at 10th ranked Seton Hall plus a couple of other wins over ranked ACC teams but I am willing to be the questions would have been raised then as well.

  5. sring says:

    Isn’t it funny how collective memory leaves out the negatives. Looking backwards, even a couple of years, we seem to forget the games in which former teams struggled. I think that the problem with being undefeated is that a lot of people, particularly UNC fans, keep waiting for the other shoe to drop rather than enjoying the fact that we are averaging over 90 points in the last 10 to 12 games. Honestly, going into the Clemson/Tech stretch, I was hoping to go 1 and 1.

    On a side note, that furious rally to beat FSU was one of the best three games I’ve ever seen in person (the Duke game from the previous year and the Wake Forest double overtime loss being the other two). I believe that the FSU game was the defining moment for the 93 team.

  6. Andy says:

    Why isn’t anyone talking about the maturity of this team? Led by a soph PG and a junior C, we are playing like a group of seniors. Even the ’05 squad, packed full of juniors couldn’t win the close ACC games on the road. What do these tough road wins tell us about this team’s confidence and poise? And BTW, we won the GT game on a DEFENSIVE play on the last possession. Enjoy the ride folks – everyone has a target on our back and these boys are playing up to it.

  7. Wadsworth says:

    The biggest concern for me is not the way we have played. While I understand the emphasis on all of the defensive averages, the simple fact is that not very many teams can score the 85 or 90 points necessary to beat us. Also overlooked is the fact that we have won these close games with different players stepping up at different times. This will help in the tourney when one or two guys have an off game but the team knows it can win by relying on the other parts.

    The scary part is how good Duke is right now. I really hate to say it, but they are much better than anticipated. The have only one loss, in overtime, to a team that was top 10 when all of its players were healthy. They also are picking up some impressive ACC wins. The bottom line may be that the Heels will have to win at least 50% of the games against Duke (2 regular season and perhaps an ACC tourney game) in order to get that coveted NCAA seeding.

  8. Tar Heel Fan says:

    Duke worries me but a little less now that I have seen they still suffer from bouts of offensive ineptitude in the second half stemming from the fact they have no one who can break down the defense and kick for open shots. Duke relies on transition points and spreading the floor to get open threes. They do not have an interior game scary enough to dump in then kick out when the double comes and unless Nolan Smith steps up his play they still are playing with Paulus mostly at point who is a liability unless he is shooting an open jumper. Their defense is pretty formidable but lacks an inside presence to stop our interior game.

    If UNC wins the ACC reg season outright with three or fewer losses then they will be the #1 seed in the East assuming they at least get to Sat of the ACCT

  9. Chris says:

    There are few topics that are worth this much talk about. The bottom line is that Carolina right now is one of about 8 or so teams that could win the whole thing, which is also the case in any other usual year. They’re still ranked number 1 because they haven’t lost, not because they’ve played number 1 basketball. And that’s fine. They aren’t ultimately as good as Raymond Felton’s team. And that’s fine. I would hate to be part of the societal trend which denies accolades for achievements.

  10. Tar Heel alum and fan says:

    To echo other comments – the team is undefeated, after all, and winning against Clemson and Georgia Tech gives them the confidence to know they can win close games. Those are tough, tough venues and teams always get up for UNC. I attended a couple of UNC-Clemson games at Clemson and it is always a madhouse there. I recall that UNC lost one of those games but still went on to win a national championship, so it’s way early in the schedule to get overly concerned.

    On defense they seem to clamp down in spurts, when needed, as opposed to a game-long effort. Maybe that’s just part of the learning curve. On offense, there is no better team in the nation.

  11. Tar Heel Fan says:

    According to the IC message board, Roy told Mike Tirico today that the 05 team did not start playing defense until midway through the ACC season.

  12. 52BigGameJames says:

    and that’s why I’m more worried about the offense (balance) than I am the D.

  13. Chris says:

    I think the team right now is most vulnerable to teams with good solid rebounding, defense, and paint play. Clemson showed that Tyler can be handcuffed, and Thompson stood around like he was a spectator. Stephenson wasn’t there. It took 39 or whatever points from Ellington to save the game, and he won’t score that many ever again. When we lose it will be to a team that outplays us underneath and holds Tyler to a mediocre game. If Thompson and Stephenson decide to participate, this would obviously change.

  14. Josh Bowling says:

    That’s right BigGame. An offensive balance from our squad no team can handle. For those that show a lack in scoring allow defensive schemes to work against our typical scorers.

  15. Josh Bowling says:

    Yeah Chris, it did scare me a little to watch Georgia Tech be so successful at the high-post position. They kept going back to it time & again to find it usually resulted in a bucket. Gotta clamp down on that sort of stuff. Nevertheless, we won.

  16. william says:

    I don’t think anyone expected 1993 team to win it all. Yes, they were good but it did not become apparent how good they were until at least February. We were definitely considered the underdog to either Kentucky or Michigan who were in the other bracket of the Final Four.

  17. william says:

    I don’t ever remember losing to Clemson and then winning the National Championship.

    Obviously, it was not in 1957, since we went undefeated. In 1982, we only lost at home to Wake without Perkins, and at UVa. In 1993, I believe we were 34-4 and lost to Michigan, Duke, Georgia Tech and Wake, and in 2005, we lost to Santa Clara, Wake, Duke and GIT, so I believe that the poster is remembering a loss to some other school.

  18. TxTarheel says:

    If you’d told me that Wed night Ellington only scores 7, UNC only makes 2 / 10 3-pointers, UNC is out-rebounded & also has more turnovers…I would’ve believed they will lose. A big key for this team down the stretch in any close game, season or playoffs, will be converting FT. 80% clip on the road covers a lot of ills. It certainly looks like Tyler will never back down, neither should we

  19. Josh Bowling says:

    Converting free-throws is like converting quartz crystal into diamond. You’re right Txtarheel, it masked a lot of mistakes and errors on our part. Donald Williams sealed the deal for us in 93. I will never forget some of his shooting performances in the ACC tournament going forward into that championship. I forgot all of his next season though. Do we even know what the keys are to winning a national title this year? You must look at other teams’ characteristics. I wouldn’t say that we have to be great defenders, if the other playing field doesn’t warrant it. There have been national championship teams with less than stellar defense. You have to take a look at the current field and see how you measure up. A historical viewpoint may have its’ irrelevancies since those prior fields of competition were different. Let’s change the criteria we use to evaluate.

  20. kgoon1590 says:

    COMMENT DELETED

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