March 21, 2006
CHAPEL HILL -- At the NCAA Tournament, North Carolina suffered a very disappointing end to its otherwise amazing season.
"It was a wonderful ride with a great group of kids," UNC coach Roy Williams said, after the Tar Heels fell 65-60 to George Mason in the NCAA's second round. "Everybody can say they have great kids, but everybody on my team you guys could take home and you would feel comfortable if they were in charge of your children...
"I love this team. When you look at what they've accomplished, they've accomplished things that maybe people didn't think they could. But they were an unbelievable group of kids that took me for a great ride, and I feel very fortunate to have coached them."
Just as it was no fluke when the Tar Heels put together a surprising 23-8 season, including a shocking second-place finish (after being picked sixth) in the ACC, it was no fluke when they stumbled in the postseason. At the ACC Tournament, they fell to a better team (Boston College) in the semifinals. At the NCAA Tournament, they barely survived No. 14 seed Murray State (69-65) and simply got beat by No. 11 seed George Mason.
The Patriots did not eliminate UNC by hitting a ridiculous percentage of difficult shots, or by watching the Tar Heels miss a bunch of wide-open jumpers. No, the underdog won the game straight-up, with no smoke or mirrors. George Mason put pressure on UNC in all of the right places, and Carolina simply was unable to respond enough times to win.
Many of UNC's preseason worries -- inexperience, immaturity, point guard play, half-court offense -- reared their ugly heads in the NCAA Tournament. Murray State and George Mason were able to expose many of the flaws that remained mostly hidden (especially during the Tar Heels' amazing stretch run) during the regular season.
In the end, the harsh realities of postseason play brought Carolina crashing back to earth. If you lean too heavily on one player, you will be forced to adjust. If you have weak links anywhere in your rotation, offensively or defensively, they will be identified and exploited. If you have rookies or inexperienced veterans who are uncomfortable in the spotlight, they will be exposed.
UNC's biggest problem at the Big Dance stemmed from its over-reliance on freshman center Tyler Hansbrough in the half-court offense, and the inability of the other Tar Heels to pick up the slack when the big guy was repeatedly double- and triple-teamed.
Against Murray State, Hansbrough finished with 24 points and nine rebounds. UNC advanced mainly because its suffocating defense, combined with the Racers' cold shooting, limited the opponent to 25-for-65 shooting and 7-for-27 three-point accuracy. Offensively, freshman forward Danny Green (15 points) was the only player who took advantage of the open spaces created by the attention given to Hansbrough, but the Tar Heels survived.
Against George Mason, the disaster scenario unfolded. Carolina again didn't get many of the fastbreak opportunities that fueled its engine so often during the regular season, and the Patriots threw two, three and even four bodies at Hansbrough when he caught the ball down low in UNC's half-court sets. He finished with a season-low 10 points (5-13 FG) and nine rebounds, and he didn't attempt a single free throw.
"They sent a lot of guys at me," Hansbrough said. "They were pretty aggressive. It was frustrating."
GUARDS, TERRY PROVED VULNERABLE
The extra-heavy attention George Mason put on Hansbrough in the paint again shifted the Tar Heels' offensive burden onto others. Either one or more players were going to have to hit some open shots from the perimeter, as Green did against Murray State, or one or more players were going to have to create quality chances via dribble penetration.
This time, Carolina failed both tests.
Senior forward David Noel, who claimed a respected place in UNC history with his unselfish leadership of this very young team, was one bright spot against the Patriots. He had a team-high 22 points (9-15 FG, 4-9 threes), seven rebounds, four assists, four blocks and a steal. Saying good-bye to Noel was one thing that brought tears from Williams after the game.
"I think David Noel epitomizes what we want all student-athletes to be. I think David Noel epitomizes what we want as a tremendous team player," Williams said. "He tried to help our team win on and off the court as well as anyone I have been around in my life. I was very fortunate to coach him. I'm better today because I have coached him."
Unfortunately for UNC, everyone else in the rotation showed his inexperience in the postseason. At times, Hansbrough and Noel were the only reliable players on the floor. When one or both went to the bench, things sometimes got really ugly.
Junior forward Reyshawn Terry, a key component for the Tar Heels for the first time in his career, suffered a meltdown against Murray State and George Mason. He shot very poorly -- 5-20 FG and 2-10 threes for a combined 18 points -- and he continued his habits of making poor decisions offensively and being caught out of position defensively. He looked nervous and uncomfortable, just as he started the 2005-06 season, and he played that way.
Meanwhile, in a season-long trend, nobody in the guard rotation proved dangerous off the dribble or with the pass. Forced into the role of creator, which has never been a good fit for his otherwise impressive skill set, Noel suffered six turnovers against George Mason.
Freshman point guard Bobby Frasor (leadership, defense), freshman wing guard Marcus Ginyard (defense) and junior wing guard Wes Miller (three-point shooting, defense) all have distinct strengths, play smart, play hard and are extremely coachable. But their offensive limitations, along with those of sophomore point guard Quentin Thomas and senior center Byron Sanders, were glaring whenever the Tar Heels needed a key basket.
Scoring ability, quality depth and ball-handling skill don't figure to be serious problems for the Tar Heels next season. Williams' six-man recruiting class includes ready-for-college point guard Ty Lawson (a true point), instant-offense wing guard Wayne Ellington and NBA-caliber forward Brandan Wright, plus wing forward William Graves and post players Alex Stepheson and Deon Thompson.
But that's next year. Williams can't bring himself to think about 2006-07 just yet.
"It's been an absolutely wonderful ride with my team," Williams said. "Today is about as disappointed as I have ever been. The kids tried as hard as they could possibly try."