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Progress Mixed For Preseason Concerns

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

  February 2, 2004 CHAPEL HILL — Soon after getting his first looks at his first North Carolina basketball team last fall, UNC coach Roy Williams spoke about the many things that needed to change if the Tar Heels were going to be successful this season. Defense. Toughness. Pace of play. Ball-handling. Shot selection. Depth.

As Carolina (13-5, 3-4 ACC) fumbled it way to a 5-4 record in January, with road losses to Kentucky, Maryland, Florida State and — gasp — Clemson, it became obvious that the Heels remained a work in progress. At times they had the look of a team that, if things come together down the stretch, is talented enough to go a long way. At other times, they resembled a maddeningly inconsistent collection of individuals, oh-so-ripe for an early NCAA Tournament exit, if the Big Dance is in their future at all.

Williams, a sensitive sort, already has run the emotional gamut this season: anger, joy, frustration, satisfaction, despair, relief, even disbelief. He regularly criticizes his players' performances in public, yet he usually starts with himself in the blame game. He repeatedly has benched star players, even for long stretches in toss-up contests, when they've failed to follow his directives. He has considered every defense imaginable and implemented a few (see the recent 1-3-1 halfcourt trap) in an attempt to find the best fits for his personnel, but his failures have far outnumbered his successes in that regard.

“I've been fortunate, spoiled rotten, the past several years,” Williams said in early January. “Coaching has been an easy gig. Right now it's as frustrating as I've ever been in my life. … I'm worried about if I'm going to jump out of the plane on the way home.”

At times, Williams has left the impression that he initially underestimated the challenge he was facing with this UNC team. He has said, perhaps only half-jokingly, that some of his players think they invented the game of basketball. He has been bewildered when, just moments after a play is explained to the team in a huddle, someone immediately runs in the wrong direction once the ball is put into play. He often has been stunned by the lack of communication among the players on the floor.

At the same time, given his comments in October, he obviously saw some of his team's struggles coming.

Among his many preseason priorities, the coach wanted a dramatically faster pace offensively. That one he can check off the list. As expected, sophomore point guard Raymond Felton has proven to be a perfect match for Williams' preferred style. No point guard in the nation goes from end to end more quickly or more efficiently than Felton, who led the ACC in assists through the end of January. The players love running on a fast track, and most are well-suited for it. The Tar Heels, who averaged 72.1 points per game last season, are motoring along at an 86.4-point pace this year.

Ball-handling? Check. Because of the presence of Felton, an absolute wizard with the ball in his hands, many scoffed at Williams' preseason comments about the Heels' potential ball-handling woes. Again, though, the coach was right. Every other member of UNC's seven-man rotation has proven to be either careless with perimeter passes, turnover-prone in traffic, or both. It would be a stretch to call anyone else on the entire roster an above-average ball-handler. Nevertheless, the Heels were averaging about 15 turnovers per game, not a terrible number for a team working at such a frenetic pace.

Shot selection? Check. Especially in the halfcourt offense, Carolina still struggles at times, but the problems have more to do with execution than shot selection. Sean May has lost his explosiveness in recent weeks, and along with it his accuracy and production. Jawad Williams still has consistent problems getting his shot off in the low post. Rashad McCants, David Noel and Melvin Scott occasionally take the kinds of contested, off-balance jumpers that drive Williams absolutely crazy, but overall the Heels have improved dramatically in this area. Jackie Manuel, an offensive disaster for the past two seasons, is the best example of the positive influence of the new staff in this regard.

Depth? There is no true success story here, because nobody outside the top seven has emerged as even a competent player, and the team still desperately needs more help at point guard and in the post. Indeed, Carolina has lived up to its preseason reputation as the most top-heavy bunch in the nation. To put it bluntly, the Heels lose a lot almost every time Justin Bohlander, Damion Grant, Jesse Holley, Byron Sanders or Reyshawn Terry steps onto the court. They're simply not ACC-caliber players right now, not even close. Nevertheless, plenty of top teams slice their rotations down to seven late in the season, and the Heels are no worse off than they expected to be three months ago.

“There is no draft. We can't bring anyone else in,” Williams said. “We've got Jackie Manuel and David Noel (off the bench). I feel very comfortable with them. After that, I feel comfortable in certain situations with the other guys, and in other situations I don't feel comfortable with them. We have given some other guys opportunities, and sometimes they have done well and sometimes they haven't.”

Trouble Areas: Defense, Toughness

The devastating loss at Clemson, in particular, left this UNC team in a very serious danger zone. If the Heels fall to Duke on Feb. 5 — for this bunch, no result would be a surprise — they will finish the first half of their ACC schedule with a 3-5 record. In the second half, they face road games with Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Virginia, N.C. State and Duke. Carolina has lost 19 of its last 21 conference road tests, and confidence again has become a major problem.

“We feel lost,” May said. “We don't know what it is we're doing. It's something we're not doing. We just have to figure it out. It's eating us alive.”

While there is no shortage of mysteries with this Carolina team, the cornerstones of its problems are very clear: defense and toughness. The latter doesn't figure to change much during the course of the season. The former will have to improve significantly if these Heels want to avoid the program's fourth consecutive embarrassing ending.

Williams has spoken at times this season about this team's need for an enforcer-type mentality, someone with a hard edge capable of doing a lot of the dirty work required in what has become a very physical sport. The problem: Nobody on the entire roster even comes close to that description. Scott, from the mean streets of Baltimore, has a bit of built-in nastiness, but he's a 6-1 guard who plays solely on the perimeter. Felton, May and Williams are poster boys for being nice on and off the court — perhaps too nice, in some cases. Ditto for Noel, a former football player with a chiseled, intimidating 6-6 physique but a good-guy approach to the sport.

“You can't change someone's personality,” Williams said. “You can coach aggressiveness, and kids can make it a priority to be aggressive, but you can't change their basic personality. Some guys have that nasty streak built into them. Some don't.”

Then there's the defense. It's UNC's No. 1 problem area, by far. In their first seven ACC games combined, the Tar Heels' field goal percentage defense was over 50 percent. That's an absurdly high number no amount of offensive talent can consistently overcome. How's this for a nice statistical gauge: When the Heels keep their opponents under 50 percent from the field, they're 12-1. When they don't, they're 1-4.

In their victories over UNC, Wake Forest and Maryland exploited the Heels inside. May has difficulty staying with quicker players and, at about 6-8, simply can't handle true big men such as Wake's Eric Williams or UConn's Emeka Okafor. Against Clemson, May played only 19 minutes, because the Carolina coaches didn't like the way he failed to front the men he was guarding down low. Jawad Williams, a more natural wing player, also has problems in the post, and his recent run of injuries (which required a facemask to protect a broken nose) negatively affected his defense and rebounding. Noel has plenty of strength and athleticism and works his tail off down low, but at 6-6 he just doesn't have the reach required to deal with many centers and power forwards. Grant might be effective in spot duty, but he's still working off the rust after a long absence because of knee problems.

Florida State and Clemson, meanwhile, shot the lights out in their triumphs against UNC. One of the most destructive aspects of poor defense is that it allows inferior opponents to build their confidence as the game progresses, and the Heels are learning that lesson the hard way. UNC recently experienced one of the most extreme examples of this phenomenon in the history of college basketball. The Tigers went into their game with Carolina hitting 23.4 percent of their three-pointers; against the Heels, they shot 84.6 percent (11-of-13) from long range. The Seminoles — probably the other weakest offensive team in the ACC — converted 55.9 percent overall, 42.1 percent on three-pointers.

Those numbers are tough for anyone to beat.