March 14, 2005 CHAPEL HILL When North Carolina won its last four games of the regular season without Rashad McCants, who was sidelined with a mysterious intestinal disorder, it became popular among UNC fans and media members to proclaim that the Tar Heels were good enough to win the national championship even without their star guard. Uh, no.
As mercurial, emotional and unpredictable as he may be, McCants is at worst UNC's third-best player behind center Sean May and point guard Raymond Felton, both first-team All-ACC selections. (McCants made the third team.) He's the Tar Heels' second-best three-point shooter behind Felton, and he's the best at creating his own shot under pressure. He had more assists this season than anyone besides Felton. He also helps on the glass, and while he remains an inconsistent one-on-one defender, the Heels are stronger as a team defensively when McCants plays a lot of minutes.
Perhaps the fans' optimism came from the glow of UNC's first outright ACC regular-season championship since 1993, a year in which the Tar Heels won the national title, but the Tar Heels' performance without McCants wasn't exactly overwhelming. Counting a home game against Clemson, when he played only half the game before leaving with stomach problems, the Heels went 5-0 without McCants, but four of those wins were against a losing team (Florida State), two NIT-bound foes (Clemson, Maryland) and a team (N.C. State) that barely survived the NCAA bubble.
News flash: The competition will be at least that tough beginning with the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and it will be even tougher the rest of the way.
The absurdity of the win-without-McCants theory became obvious at the ACC Tournament, where top-seeded UNC bowed out with a 78-75 semifinal loss to Georgia Tech. The bottom line: Both offensively and defensively, Carolina looks a lot more like a Top 25 team than a top-five team without McCants at full speed.
The Tar Heels barely survived Clemson (88-81) in the quarterfinals, when only a heroic effort from Felton and a surprise appearance from McCants (13 points in 15 minutes) kept the Heels alive. They trailed by 13 points with 7:53 left before McCants entered the game, nailed two three-pointers, then dove on the floor to produce a Clemson turnover and continue the rally. McCants played only 22 minutes against Tech, scoring 17 points to lead another big comeback and coming up just short on a three-pointer that would have tied the game in the final seconds.
Even before the ACC Tournament, a closer look indicated that something was amiss without McCants. UNC has improved dramatically at the defensive end of the floor, keeping its opponents' field goal accuracy under 40 percent for most of the season, but that stopped when McCants went to the sidelines. Down the stretch, N.C. State (45.3), Maryland (42.3), Florida State (48.3) and Duke (46.4) shot fairly well against the Tar Heels, then Clemson (47.5) did the same in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, evidence mounted that other UNC players perform better when McCants is drawing his share of the defense's attention. Felton shot poorly in the four games McCants missed at the end of the regular season, especially from three-point range (five-for-20). Jawad Williams' turnovers increased, and his shot disappeared against Duke and Tech, when he was a combined four-for-21 from the field. Against Duke, the Tar Heels shot just 40.3 percent from the field and converted only one of 11 three-pointers.
Seniors Must Improve Production
The makeup of this North Carolina team is such that its three scholarship seniors Williams, swingman Jackie Manuel and guard Melvin Scott don't need to be stars for the season to have a happy ending. At the same time, the Tar Heels desperately need consistent, reliable, confident, sure-handed play from their three veterans if they're going to have a serious chance of making it to St. Louis.
That didn't happen down the stretch.
In his last four games before entering the NCAA Tournament, Williams shot a combined 11-for-35 (31.4 percent) from the field and four-for-15 (26.7 percent) from three-point range. He had just 15 rebounds, plus four assists and nine turnovers. Some questioned Williams' selection as a third-team All-ACC player, and his recent play bad numbers, low confidence, questionable toughness did nothing to dispel those doubts.
Williams, a McDonald's All-American from Ohio, has been down this road before. The coaching staff often calls him the team's most consistent player in practice, and earlier this season Vermont coach Tom Brennan joked that he couldn't figure out which Williams (Marvin or Jawad) was being projected as an NBA lottery pick. Jawad started brilliantly last season, only to go into an extended funk after getting caught by an elbow against UNC Wilmington. He started very well again this year, only to disappear in the Tar Heels' loss at Duke (two points, three rebounds) and then again in the first half of March.
Manuel is less of a concern, mainly because UNC doesn't need quite as much from him to be successful. He and junior forward David Noel generally fit nicely into their roles as reliable support players. They normally play strong defense, they help out on the boards, and they're typically on the same page as the coaching staff. They rarely take bad shots, they know not to handle the ball too much, and they're capable of finishing on the break.
Some alarm bells sounded for Manuel at the ACC Tournament, because he stopped doing some of the things he does best, and it cost his team dearly. After going more than three months with only a single three-turnover game, he had them back-to-back against Clemson and Georgia Tech, complete with fumbles in traffic and dribbles off his own foot. At this time of year, the Tar Heels simply can't afford for that to happen. Similarly, when called upon to slow down mighty mite Tech guard Will Bynum (35 points), Manuel playing on a bad ankle failed miserably. The Heels need more from a player they touted for defensive player of the year honors in the conference.
Whereas UNC holds out hope that Williams and Manuel will bounce back well for the NCAA Tournament, it must be difficult for anyone to be optimistic about Scott. He played a whopping 27 minutes per game (with McCants limited) at the ACC Tournament, and he was simply an enormous liability at both ends of the court. After a big (12 points) performance at N.C. State on Feb. 22, Scott averaged just 3.8 points per game down the stretch despite his increased playing time.
Of all the players in the UNC rotation, Scott clearly is the one who never would have received even a second glance from coach Roy Williams on the recruiting trail. With his smallish build and short arms, Scott is a poor one-on-one defender, and his help defense is usually a step late and weak in nature. He's a very poor handler for a guard, he's a mediocre passer, he makes bad decisions with the ball, he's not particularly quick, and he's not very good at finishing on the break. His greatest asset by far is his three-point shot, but even that is streaky enough (just five-for-18 since NCSU) to be cause for concern.
With McCants' return, expect Scott's minutes to drop significantly in the NCAA Tournament, perhaps into single digits. Well-coached teams with quality players will find and expose an opponent's every weak link, and the Tar Heels weren't playing well enough heading into the Big Dance to afford themselves any luxuries.