February 12, 2008
CHAPEL HILL North Carolina entered its Feb. 10 game against Clemson with an impressive 21-2 overall record, 6-2 in the conference, yet there were two decidedly different views about the team.
As usual, one adhered more to finding fault and the negative possibilities, while the other dug out a silver lining from the black-and-blue cloud that floated into the Smith Center earlier in the week and dealt the Tar Heels an 89-78 loss, its second defeat at home this season.
Losing to archrival Duke never engenders good feelings for Carolina or its followers. Multiply those emotions when the loss occurs at the Smith Center, in a game UNC fans believed at the start of the year would be a crushing defeat for the Blue Devils.
It was the game in which the folks in Carolina blue expected Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson to shred Duke, as there seemed to be no one on the Blue Devils' roster capable of guarding either player. While that premise still may hold true, the problem was that Lawson suffered a severely sprained ankle in the previous game against Florida State and did not play against the Devils.
So with Bobby Frasor already sitting on the bench with a season-ending knee injury, UNC found itself heading into the biggest game of the first half of the season with only up-and-down senior Quentin Thomas at the point.
Thomas finished with seven assists, but he also had six turnovers, and he was the late defender on several of Duke's open three-pointers. Worse yet, Danny Green and Wayne Ellington combined to go 4-of-24 from the floor. The two were impatient and settled for far too many jump shots.
"I couldn't throw a rock in the ocean," Ellington said.
UNC coach Roy Williams had a stinging indictment that seemed to be directed at Ellington.
"Sometimes we had good shots," Williams said. "If you're going to have good shots and you're going to be a good shooter, you've got to shoot the frickin' ball on game day. It doesn't do you any good to shoot the ball through the week. You have to shoot the ball on game day, or you're not as good a shooter as everybody says you are."
For a brief period this year, Ellington had begun driving to the basket and drawing fouls, which enabled him to put his 90 percent average at the free throw line to good use. Now he has fallen in love with jump shots again, and that is not working so well for him or the team.
Green conceded that he has been in a slump of late, extending beyond the game against Duke. He made some key plays late against FSU, but he looked distracted for several other games. His concentration, which he has lacked at points in his career, is back to being inconsistent at best.
So all of this brings us full circle to the questions of the moment. The post-game rhetoric either had Carolina one step from a ruined season, a team that cannot comprehend the "chemistry" Duke possesses, or it said the loss of Lawson and his eventual return was the only barrier to this team being the same club ranked No. 1 in the country for more than half of the start of this season.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Ellington and Green definitely have to answer some questions, starting with the biggest one: Are they balking at parts of what Williams is teaching, with neither realizing his potential because of a stubborn view of the game? Or did those two simply try to do too much and get outside of their comfort zones against a team the quality of Duke?
"We all wanted to do well and pick up for Ty," Ellington said. "We all just had a bad shooting night."
Yes, some of those shots simply did not drop, but that explanation cannot explain the quick trigger for so many shots, nor can it resolve the issue of Ellington shooting too often off the move or Green taking bad shots.
For anyone who has studied this team and watched it not just this year but last season, as well, a couple of factors do seem apparent.
The Tar Heels still have not embraced the concept of defense-first, although Williams has nearly lost his mind and his voice from preaching that aspect of the game. There was a point at which UNC could have won against Duke, a realistic chance even Blue Devils fans would have to concede.
To do it, though, Carolina was going to have to make stops on defense and show some patience on offense. The Tar Heels did neither.
"They got any shot they wanted," Williams said. "I don't know very many times (against the Devils) that our defense dictated what shot they got. They had better spacing; they were more patient."
STAR TALENT CAN BE CHALLENGE
Signing a bench full of high school All-Americans and elite players is a blessing and not a curse, but there are challenges to coaching a roster full of kids recruited by anyone with the nerve to ask for that date.
In today's world of summer teams and hangers-on with dreams of getting a piece of an NBA check some day, most of these kids have never heard the word "no." They have been told basketball is privileged to have them, not the other way around.
The trick for Williams, or any other coach in his position, is getting past this barrier. He must erase much of the stubbornness that comes with kids wanting to do it their way, without destroying the confidence and creativity that makes the kid who he is in the first place.
In 2005, Williams managed to accomplish this feat for the most part. That team bought into what he wanted eventually, became a force defensively and got the ball to the proper people at the right times. And it was the best team in the country, not just the most talented physically.
The truth is, nobody knows where this team will land in March or April. If the Tar Heels can enjoy a little luck and stay healthy the rest of the way, if Lawson can get healthy, truly healthy, Carolina may still have time to embrace what Williams wants and become the team these kids, their coaches and the fans believe it can be.
A year ago, the Tar Heels did not fall short of the Final Four so much because of stubbornness as for inexperience. Now they have the experience, but they will have to show that part of what experience has done is teach them what is really important to take that next step and get to the Final Four and earn a shot at a national title.
Otherwise, the negative thinkers will win the day.