February 6, 2007
CHAPEL HILL Even after North Carolina's shocking 83-79 loss at N.C. State on Feb. 3, Roy Williams knows he has one of the best teams in America. What he doesn't know is if it's truly national championship material.
The Tar Heels' loss to State, in which the Wolfpack shot 60.5 percent from the field for the game and a sizzling 76.5 percent in the second half, brought back bad flashes of their earlier defeats against Gonzaga and Virginia Tech. In all three games, UNC's opponent ran its offense efficiently and shot a high percentage, and in all three the Heels went cold from the perimeter.
The State game also raised questions about the Heels' extremely talented but perhaps uncomfortably deep rotation, although Williams' post-game frustration focused instead on his team's lack of intensity and toughness.
"I don't know that I've ever had a team shoot 76 percent in the second half against us before," Williams said. "I have no answers. They had more passion for the game than we did, and I don't understand that. I will never understand that. They dominated us. I'm ticked off.
"I can't explain it. We're too fat and happy. We thought we could win just by showing up, and you can't do that. Every team in this league is good. There is going to be adversity all the time, but you can't just let people jump up and shoot the ball right in your face. There's a certain amount of toughness needed to play this game."
It said a lot about the odd construction of this UNC team that its only senior starter, mercurial forward Reyshawn Terry, suffered the biggest meltdown in Raleigh. An improved defender and solid rebounder, he was missing in action in both crucial areas, which proved to be the difference in the game. Terry fouled out in just 15 minutes, after posting two points, an assist and zero rebounds.
Perimeter shooting also continues to be an occasional problem area for the Tar Heels, which is somewhat surprising because they have at least four regulars who have plenty of range. While the team's 37.4 percent accuracy from three-point land ranks in the top half of the ACC, it struggled badly in that area against Gonzaga (6-26), Virginia Tech (8-26) and NCSU (4-15).
Freshman wing guard Wayne Ellington, who ranks first on the team in three-pointers (47 through 23 games) and second to Terry in three-point accuracy (40.2 percent), struggled in all three UNC losses. His combined numbers against Gonzaga (1-7), Virginia Tech (2-8) and NCSU (2-7) added up to 22.8 percent.
Perhaps Williams can find some comfort in the dramatic progress Terry has made overall on his watch, and in the fact that the nature of perimeter shooting always has generated hot and cold results. But the coach has no such safe harbors when it comes to his future decisions on his playing rotation.
N.C. State's victory over UNC was a surprise, to be certain. But nobody on earth truly believes that the Wolfpack's top seven players could beat the Tar Heels' top seven in a 40-minute game. One big difference in Raleigh, of course, was that while coach Sidney Lowe used only seven men, Williams used 12, and the performances of some of the extras were weak enough to suggest that they might have made the difference in a four-point defeat.
On the long list of things that make Williams a great coach, his ability to build strong relationships with his players and to consistently pull productive, unselfish play out of them is at or near the top. Playing 12 men, with career reserve Mike Copeland and freshman William Graves (who's redshirting) the only scholarship players stuck to the bench, probably helps a lot in that regard.
But the competition will only get tougher in March, and each possession will take on greater value. Those are probably the main reasons why there are so few examples in ACC history of great teams using more than 10 men regularly.
The most obvious candidates to be chopped from the rotation moving forward are junior point guard Quentin Thomas and freshman center Alex Stepheson. Thomas coughed up two turnovers in four minutes against State, and Stepheson looked out of place in his four minutes.
Many UNC fans have raved recently about Thomas' play, and indeed his statistics have improved dramatically during the course of the season. But he still looks extremely uncomfortable in pressure situations, and true title contenders simply can't afford those kinds of weak links.
POSITIVES: HANSBROUGH, LAWSON
If there were silver linings in UNC's loss to State, they revolved around the play of freshman point guard Ty Lawson and sophomore forward Tyler Hansbrough. Both players showed exactly the kind of production and intensity great teams need from their stars, especially in big games.
None of the ACC's 10 national championship teams has won it all with a freshman starting at point guard, but Lawson is showing lots of signs that he's not a typical rookie. Against the Wolfpack, he was absolutely dominant and appeared to thrive offensively (21 points, 8-12 field goals, 2-4 threes, seven assists, one turnover) and defensively (great ball pressure) under the weight of a game that seemed to be drifting away from the Tar Heels.
Williams, whose pet peeves include players who seek out their own shot too often, recently told Lawson he wasn't looking for his shot enough. Perhaps bolstered by his coach's support, Lawson quickly pushed his scoring average into double digits (10.1) and his three-point accuracy to a desirable level (40 percent). Along with Terry, Ellington and sophomore forward Danny Green, Lawson now gives UNC at least four dangerous perimeter threats.
Hansbrough, meanwhile, continues to leave his mark as one of the most intense, hard-working players in ACC history. If the rest of the Tar Heels exhibited the same kind of makeup on a consistent basis, it would be hard to envision them losing a game.
Despite averaging fewer minutes (28.9) than most of the league's other top players, Hansbrough ranked among ACC leaders after 23 games in scoring (18.7), rebounding (8.2), field goal percentage (52.6) and free throw percentage (75.1). He's a sure thing for a second straight appearance on the All-ACC first team and a serious candidate for player of the year honors.
Along with Lawson and freshman power forward Brandan Wright, Hansbrough will provide the Tar Heels with a rock-solid foundation moving forward. The rest will be up to Williams, with his rotation decisions, and the other Tar Heels, with their fluctuating levels of passion and intensity.