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Leading Indicator Three-point Success

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

January 24, 2005

CHAPEL HILL -- Since the three-point shot became a part of college basketball in the 1980s, most coaches have been preaching to their players about the dangers of relying too heavily on long-range accuracy.

From North Carolina legend Dean Smith to UNC's Roy Williams and most others in between, coaches have emphasized to their teams that many other aspects of the game -- defense, rebounding, ball-handling, post play, etc. -- are tied more directly to effort, execution and other more predictable factors. Quality three-point shooting, on the other hand, often comes and goes without explanation. It's an important and valuable skill to have, of course, but it's one that must be kept in proper perspective at all times.

Those same coaches likely would tell you that if a particular team rises and falls from game to game mainly on the accuracy of its three-point shooting, it's probably not a very good team, and true consistency will be an almost unreachable ideal.

While it's probably a slight oversimplification, the 2005-06 UNC team fits the above description extremely well, perhaps frighteningly so in Williams' eyes. Its wins and losses directly and intimately correspond with its success or failure from three-point range. Sure enough, that is making consistency an elusive goal.

Into late January, the numbers were striking. During the Tar Heels' surprisingly solid (11-4, 3-2 ACC) but extremely inconsistent start, they shot 39.4 percent from three-point range in their victories. In their losses to Illinois, Southern California, Miami and Virginia, the number was 28.7 percent. Were the statistics for the entire season to that point, the former percentage would have ranked first in the conference, and the latter would have ranked last.

UNC's recent trip to Florida State carried the theme to a new extreme. Had the Heels had anything other than an outstanding shooting night from the perimeter, they would have lost to the Seminoles, perhaps in a blowout, and suffered their third consecutive defeat. Instead, the Heels connected on 13 of 21 attempts (61.9 percent) from long range, somehow managing to escape Tallahassee with an 81-80 victory, despite 23 turnovers.

The good news for Carolina at FSU was that several players offered helping hands. Junior guard Wes Miller, making his first start of the season, went 6-for-10 on three-pointers to finish with a team-high 18 points. Junior forward Reyshawn Terry (3-for-6), freshman forward Danny Green (3-for-3) and freshman guard Marcus Ginyard
(1-for-1) also got into the act. Those four players' three-point shooting percentages heading into the game were 40.7, 35.7, 25.0 and 23.1, respectively.

The bad news for the Tar Heels, moving forward, is that they can't possibly count on shooting at or better than 50 percent from long range very often. Among the team's nine rotation players, only Miller, Terry and senior forward David Noel (43.8) even top 30 percent for the season on threes.

Prior to the FSU game, the Heels ranked with Clemson and Virginia Tech at the bottom of the conference in long-range marksmanship, at 33.7 percent. And that was with Carolina's perimeter players getting some reasonable breathing room outside, thanks to the superb play of freshman Tyler Hansbrough, who gets as much attention from defenses in the low post as any rookie in recent ACC history.

For his part, Williams won't buy such a simplistic explanation for his team's successes and failures, and he shouldn't. His job is to help his players improve in every aspect of the game, especially effort and execution. He was right, for example, when he said that the Tar Heels' biggest problem in their loss at Southern Cal was that the Trojans competed harder than the Heels, beating them to loose balls and stray rebounds all night long.

But the coach also understands the importance of inside-outside balance on offense, and Carolina's desperate need to maximize its three-point potential. His decisions on starting lineups and playing time show this to be true. He may not like it -- heck, he probably hates it -- but with this particular team, in this particular season, his chances of winning and losing likely will remain directly tied to the Tar Heels' ability to shoot well from long range.


It's still difficult for many UNC fans to believe that a transfer from James Madison could ever have an important role with the Tar Heels, but such is the case with Miller.

When Williams told Miller he was going to start against FSU, the coach told his player to think first about defense, not scoring. Indeed, when the staff needed a defender for pro-style Miami wing guard Guillermo Diaz earlier in the season, they turned mainly to Miller. Diaz won that battle in the end, but Miller has earned the respect of his coaches, teammates and the Carolina fans via his smart play, confident style and never-ending hustle.

Miller's 18-point explosion against the Seminoles marked only the third time this season he cracked double digits. In UNC's four losses, he hit only five of his 18 attempts from three-point range. Against FSU, however, he not only reversed that trend, he did it under challenging circumstances. His final three-pointer came with only 54 seconds to play, from at least 23 feet, with the Tar Heels trailing by two, after a stretch in which the Heels managed only one field goal in seven minutes.

That shot took guts and confidence, the latter of which is not something this UNC team appears to have in great supply. Noel? Yes. Hansbrough? Yes. Frasor? Most of the time. Miller may be next on the list, and that's both an amazing accomplishment for a James Madison transfer and a serious alarm for the Carolina coaching staff. Even giving the mercurial Terry and the green Green the benefit of the doubt, that still leaves the Heels with only six reliable players.

Miller's spot in the starting lineup and increasing minutes had to come at the expense of someone, and the two players whose playing time has dwindled in recent weeks are Ginyard and sophomore point guard Quentin Thomas.

Williams has called Ginyard one of the best high school defenders he's ever seen, and the player's defense at the college level has been far better than that of most rookies. On offense, however, he has been a liability. He's shooting less than 40 percent from the floor, less than 25 percent on three-pointers, and has more turnovers than assists. That proved to be a bad combination on a team that was struggling to handle the ball and put it in the basket, so Ginyard has gone from averaging about 25 minutes to about 18 per game.

Thomas has been an enormous disappointment, and that's putting it nicely. Considered a serious contender for the starting point guard spot in the offseason, he has fallen light years behind Frasor and may be playing himself out of the rotation entirely. On a team with a tiny margin for error, it's difficult to see how Williams can justify any more minutes for Thomas, even though there's not another point guard (besides Frasor) on the roster.

The play of Thomas in recent games against Virginia Tech and FSU was so bad that even an ABC fan may have been tempted to feel sorry for the kid. He looked so overmatched -- so overwhelmed, so afraid -- that it was actually painful to watch. He has become a point guard who's uncomfortable with the ball in his hands.

Against the Hokies, Thomas had zero assists and seven turnovers in nine minutes, which has to rank as one of the worst statistical lines in the history of Carolina basketball. He was so desperate to get rid of the ball when he crossed mid-court, even while under only mild pressure, that several times he nearly threw the ball off the side of an unsuspecting teammate's head. He later looked so out of place at FSU, even failing to catch a simple outlet pass and again panicking under only ordinary pressure, that Williams played him for a season-low two minutes.

Thomas managed two turnovers in those two minutes against the Seminoles. One more error could have meant the difference in a game the Tar Heels won by only one point.

That's reality for this UNC team.