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Felton, May, Mccants Getting Little Help

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  March 15, 2004 CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina juniors Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott and Jawad Williams are featured this year on the back cover of the school's media guide, which offers historical figures (but no current players) on the other side. Next season, thanks to a long-held tradition in the program, the trio of rising seniors likely will have the honor of gracing the front cover of the book. Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, who whimpered into the NCAA Tournament as an unpredictable No. 6 seed, Manuel, Scott and Williams played down the stretch as if they were undercover. At the ACC Tournament, where UNC bowed out with a quarterfinal loss to Georgia Tech, the threesome faded into the background exactly when their team needed them most. In a continuing theme, perhaps nobody should be surprised at anything this Carolina team does or fails to do, but it's difficult to imagine a more complete collapse from a group of veteran players on a successful team in an important game. In the Heels' 83-82 loss to Tech, sophomore stars Raymond Felton (20 points, six assists, four rebounds, three steals), Rashad McCants (25 points, seven rebounds, three assists) and Sean May (27 points, eight rebounds, two blocks) didn't need much help. They didn't get any. In a starting role against the Jackets, Scott played 30 minutes but missed all four of his field goal attempts and failed to score. Williams, also a starter, made just three of 11 shots from the field, didn't get to the foul line and finished with six points and seven rebounds. Off the bench, Manuel managed to get called for three fouls in his first four minutes of action and finished with two points and one rebound in 13 minutes. “I'd like to have more balance,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I think the best teams I've had in the past have had great balance. We had three guys do a great job, and a lot of times that's good enough, but I do think it would be more important if we had five guys that the other team would have to guard and play.” When the Sports Journal called UNC one of the most top-heavy teams in college basketball history in the preseason, there were cries of exaggeration. When various media members harped on the Tar Heels' obvious lack of depth last October, there was a backlash from many fans and writers, who suggested there was nothing at all unusual about a team using a seven-man rotation. But the doubters may have missed the point. To most coaches, quality depth means having seven or eight players who are capable of consistently strong performances against quality opposition. During Maryland's run to the ACC title, there were games in which all five of the Terps' starters scored in double figures. Regular-season champ Duke reached the final in part because its decent depth allowed it to overcome shaky performances from Chris Duhon and J.J. Redick. North Carolina has no such luxury. Walk-ons Justin Bohlander and Jesse Holley combined with sophomore David Noel (a former walk-on) and freshman Reyshawn Terry to play 31 minutes against Georgia Tech. The closest thing to a success story was Noel, who had seven rebounds in 19 minutes, showed lots of energy on defense and the offensive glass, and avoided the questionable shots he took at times during the regular season. But even Noel finished with just two points, three turnovers, three (of three) missed free throws, no assists, no blocks and no steals. Confidence, Little Things Add Up There was no embarrassment to losing a one-point game to a quality opponent that entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed, and perhaps UNC will be fresher for leaving the “Greensboro Cocktail Party” two days early. But Williams has to be concerned that so many of his experienced players continue to make the same mistakes over and over, and that his juniors in particular remain in such a fragile mental state. Williams said he inserted Holley into the Georgia Tech game because the other UNC guards were not fighting through screens well, despite the fact that fighting through screens had been a point of emphasis leading up to the ACC Tournament. That was not the first time this season the Heels failed to practice what the staff had preached. Even on the Yellow Jackets' game-winning basket, McCants gambled for a steal immediately after the staff talked about UNC defenders staying between the ball and the basket, with the hope of forcing a long, contested shot. After McCants' whiff, Tech point guard Jarrett Jack penetrated and canned an open 17-footer. Amazingly, even with their questionable basketball IQ, their frequent defensive lapses and their shaky depth, the Tar Heels remain a dangerous team. Almost all of their losses have been close, and they often leave the impression that they're really one “light-bulb moment” away from making that one extra play that means the difference between a win and a loss. As always, the presence of Felton, May and McCants makes many great things possible. Regardless, the Big Three will need help — and right away — and Manuel, Scott and Williams remain the top candidates for the job, mainly by default. They are the only three players on the team who suffered through those 36 losses (and immeasurable turmoil) over the past two seasons, and their largely disappointing careers have become strong evidence for the difficulty of forgetting how to lose and learning how to win. As the pressure has grown, their games have faltered. Manuel, one of this season's true success stories, has impressed the coaching staff all year with his listening skills, vastly improved shot selection, offensive rebounding and always-strong defense. But foul problems have affected his minutes in about half of the Tar Heels' games this season, and that's something this depth-shy team simply can't afford. In eight of his last 10 games, Manuel finished with four or five fouls. That's too many. Scott, who has scored in double-figures 17 times this year and still averages more than 10 points per game, missed that mark in the final four games of the regular season as well as the ACC Tournament opener. His numbers in those five games: 4.4 points, seven-for-37 field goals (18.9 percent), five-for-25 three-pointers (20 percent). That's about as ugly as it gets. Scott still has a smooth and accurate stroke when he has time to set his feet and square his shoulders, but lately he's been rushing his shot or leaning to one side or the other. That's not a problem a coach expects to see from a well-traveled junior. Williams may be the hardest player to figure out. He's never been comfortable as an interior player, and he's continued his struggles in the post this season, especially after taking a few knocks to the noggin early in the year. He's a blocked shot waiting to happen when he catches the ball down low, and his normally solid three-point shot dropped all the way to 19.4 percent in ACC play this season. He hasn't become a consistent rebounder or defender, and he doesn't appear to be playing with much passion or energy. On other NCAA-caliber teams, Manuel, Scott and/or Williams may have fallen out of the rotation long ago. With this bunch, of course, the coaches have little choice but to keep playing them. If they show up, the Heels have a chance against anyone. If they don't, the UNC juniors could end up three-fourths of the way through their careers without a single NCAA victory.