March 6, 2007
CHAPEL HILL When North Carolina went 5-4 over the last month of the regular season, after starting 20-2, there were enough problems that a debate developed over which deficient area was the most severe.
Was it rebounding? UNC finished with the best rebounding margin in the ACC (plus-8.4) this season, but the battle under the boards turned out to be their undoing in an 89-87 loss at Maryland. The Terps absolutely dominated with a 46-33 rebounding advantage, and the Tar Heels also came up short in that department in defeats at N.C. State and Georgia Tech.
Was it defense? Of UNC's six losses this season, five of them Gonzaga, at Virginia Tech, at N.C. State, at Maryland and at Georgia Tech came when its opponent shot 50 percent or better from the field. The Zags, Hokies, Wolfpack and Yellow Jackets also hit more than 45 percent of their three-point attempts against the Tar Heels.
Was it effort/intensity? Rebounding and defense (see above) are the two areas most coaches tie directly to issues of passion, effort and teamwork.
UNC coach Roy Williams was baffled and upset whenever it seemed that his opponent wanted to win more than his team did. But the coach also pointed out after the Maryland and Georgia Tech games that the Tar Heels had run into two strong teams (both on the road) playing their best basketball of the season, and he certainly was pleased to share the ACC regular-season title in the end.
The good news for the Heels moving forward is that, despite their warts, they have some other things that remain the envy of the college basketball world.
In sophomore center Tyler Hansbrough, freshman power forward Brandan Wright and freshman point guard Ty Lawson, UNC has three of the most talented players in the nation at their respective positions. Hansbrough may be the most competitive player in America, Wright is an unbelievably smooth scorer, and Lawson pushes the ball at lightning speed but with great control.
Wright still has a lot to learn about team defense, and he needs to get tougher in support of Hansbrough in the rebounding department, but in all likelihood the performance of the players around UNC's big three will determine the Heels' postseason destiny.
Sophomore wing guard Wayne Ellington can shoot the Tar Heels into or out of trouble, and his defense remains inconsistent. Senior wing forward Reyshawn Terry has such dramatic swings in production that he could mean the difference between a Final Four trip and an early NCAA Tournament exit.
One interesting development in the Heels' 86-72 victory over Duke to close the regular season was that Williams who scoffed at suggestions that he should tighten his 12-man rotation all year long basically used 10 guys against the Blue Devils. The odd men out, as most would have guessed, were junior point guard Quentin Thomas and freshman center Alex Stepheson.
As the stakes continue to get higher, and every possession takes on greater meaning, Williams likely will shorten his bench again. The only sure things are Hansbrough, Wright and Lawson.
If Williams can find just three or four sets of steady hands to put around his big three, the Tar Heels will have as good a chance as anyone at winning championships. If he can't, everyone already knows the recipe for UNC's exits.
GINYARD HELPS TEAM CHEMISTRY
The biggest reason for the Tar Heels' inconsistency this season may be the simple fact that there are three true freshmen in the starting lineup, and seven freshmen and sophomores among the top eight players in the rotation.
Youth will do that to you.
The next-biggest reason has been a lack of leadership, which may be a direct byproduct of the biggest reason. Last year's UNC team included senior forward David Noel, a player Williams repeatedly praised as one of the best leaders he'd ever coached. The 2006-07 Tar Heels have lacked a similar figure.
In theory, Terry would fill the role, as so many seniors stars or not have done over the years in Chapel Hill. But Terry, the last of the Matt Doherty recruits on the UNC roster, has never been a good fit.
An extremely erratic player throughout his career, Terry has been too busy wrestling with his own challenges to lead the way for everyone else. His effort has improved dramatically over the past two seasons, but his lack of basketball instincts, repeated bad decisions and occasional disappearing acts have made him a regular visitor to Williams' doghouse. Terry is still a big part of the team's success when he rebounds, plays defense and hits threes, but he's simply not cut out for a leadership role, in terms of personality or production.
Many have asked why Hansbrough, an older-than-normal (at 21 years old) sophomore and one of the top players in the nation, doesn't lead the team in the locker room, as he does in points (19.8), rebounds (8.6) and minutes (30.6) per game. But Hansbrough, whether speaking with the media, his coaches, his teammates or anyone else, is a man of few words. He's typically polite and cooperative, but he'll rarely use 10 words if five will suffice. Nobody leads by example better than Hansbrough, but that's an entirely different matter.
Into this massive leadership void has stepped sophomore swingman Marcus Ginyard, who gradually has asserted himself in recent weeks on the court, with his teammates and via his statements to the media.
On the court, Ginyard already has made a name for himself as the Tar Heels' best defender. Terry somehow has won most of the coaches' awards in that regard, but Ginyard has been known for his outstanding defense since his high school days, and he has continued with that specialty at UNC. In the regular season, he rallied to finish sixth on the team in minutes played, behind only the starting five of Lawson, Ellington, Terry, Wright and Hansbrough.
Off the court, and with the media, Ginyard has a mayor-like personality. He's intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, friendly and extremely polite, and he has the respect of everyone in and around the program. He smiles all the time, and he's very positive by nature, but he's also not afraid to be critical of himself or his team when it's appropriate. Over the last month of the season, he questioned the Tar Heels' effort, unselfishness, practice habits and attention to detail. He then backed it up by making some huge, clutch plays on the court.
Late in the season, UNC's four biggest problems (to varying degrees) were leadership, defense, rebounding and perimeter scoring. Ginyard isn't much of a long-range shooter, but he's a perfect fit for the other three areas, and that was a very positive development for the Tar Heels as they headed into March Madness.