January 24, 2007
CHAPEL HILL When you're 17-2, ranked in the top five nationally, and a legitimate contender for the national championship, any problems you have likely would be welcomed by most other programs.
Such is the case at North Carolina this season.
The Tar Heels are continuing their high-scoring ways (an ACC-high 87.5 points per game), and their defense has improved significantly over the past month. They're shooting better than 50 percent from the field, they're the top rebounding team in the conference, and they have the best assist-turnover ratio in the league. Their depth and talent are the envy of the basketball world.
In short, they're clearly the class of the ACC, there's almost nothing they can't do well, and they have one of the best coaches in the nation. When the Heels did stumble Jan. 13 at Virginia Tech (a 94-88 defeat), they quickly rebounded with thrashings at Clemson (77-55) and over Georgia Tech (77-61).
So what's the problem?
Well, everyone understands the importance of guard play in March, and that's one area where UNC still has some work ahead.
Personnel-wise, the main reason the Tar Heels are winning is that nobody can match up with their power forward duo of 6-9 sophomore Tyler Hansbrough and 6-9 freshman Brandan Wright. In an era when most skilled post players don't spend much time in the college game, UNC has two absolute studs to offer, and freshman backup Deon Thompson is pretty good, too.
On most offensive possessions, Carolina looks inside to either Hansbrough or Wright. In a league that's short on true post scorers, both players are capable of catching and scoring, or following up on the offensive glass, or running out for an easy basket on the fastbreak, or passing efficiently in small spaces.
"We want to run, and run, and run some more," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "When we set up (in the half-court offense), we want to look inside first. A lot of good things can happen for us down there."
Hansbrough, who ranks in the top three in the ACC in both scoring (18.7) and rebounding (8.0), isn't very graceful, but he's extremely efficient inside with an odd combination of strength, willpower and shooting touch. Wright, who ranks second on the team in both scoring (15.3) and rebounding (6.4), is unbelievably smooth in every way and also an extremely accurate jump shooter.
Through five ACC games, the Tar Heels' next-best player may have been senior wing forward Reyshawn Terry. That was great news for UNC, because Terry has been an unpredictable variable for most of the past four years, but now he's playing by far the best defense of his career, and he seems to be accepting his reduced minutes and more modest statistics.
In late January, Terry was averaging only 6.6 points per game in ACC play, tied for fifth on the team with reserve swingman Danny Green. Terry had been in double digits for most of the pre-conference schedule.
"I don't feel I have to be The Man," Terry said. "My teammates and coaches know what I'm capable of doing. Scouts know what I'm capable of doing. Sometimes, you have to make sacrifices as a senior leader. The biggest thing is to win."
With Hansbrough, Wright and Terry across the front line, and Thompson and Green in reserve, it's difficult to imagine the Tar Heels losing many battles at those three positions for the rest of the season.
BACKCOURT PLAY REMAINS CONCERN
Barring injuries, this UNC team is going to remain one of the best in the nation. It will win championships, however, only if it's able to upgrade its guard play over the course of the next two months.
There is nothing wrong with a backcourt that consists of sophomore point guard Bobby Frasor, freshman wing guard Wayne Ellington, freshman point guard Ty Lawson and sophomore wing guard Marcus Ginyard. Frasor and Ginyard are reliable, steady hands who understand what the coaching staff wants, while Ellington and Lawson are NBA-caliber talents.
The problem relatively speaking, of course was that, as February neared, Frasor remained on the bench with an unpredictable foot injury, Ellington had lost his shooting touch, Lawson had run into ball-handling problems, and Ginyard sometimes was balancing out his outstanding defense and solid rebounding with poor decisions and ball-handling miscues.
That's not the kind of sure-handed guard play that wins championships.
Junior point guard Quentin Thomas played a lot of minutes behind Lawson in Frasor's absence, and Thomas has improved from past years and even from earlier this season, but he's definitely not the answer. Against strong competition, Thomas lacks poise and confidence. His statistics in early league play weren't bad, but his shooting and decision-making are major liabilities.
Frasor, who missed eight of UNC's first 19 games with injury problems, simply needs to get healthy. He can fill the coach-on-the-floor role Williams would love to see, but every time the doctors say that his x-rays are fine, Frasor feels something awkward in his foot. That remains a serious concern.
Lawson, while incredibly fast with the ball and a reliable scorer, must take better care of the ball. In his first five ACC games, he had 20 assists and 19 turnovers, many on bad passes that led to easy baskets in the other direction. Lawson has plenty of confidence, great strength and a nice shooting touch, but Williams wants to see better decision-making, especially in half-court sets.
Ellington also came back to earth a bit in January. UNC's third-leading scorer and best three-point shooter (40.4 percent) all season long, he often has been the perimeter ace the Tar Heels needed when opponents collapsed on Hansbrough and Wright inside. But in his first five conference games, Ellington's scoring average was only 8.8 points per game, compared to 13.2 in non-conference play, and his ACC three-point accuracy was only 26.1 percent.
Williams notices the problems, and he's a master of constructive criticism, but he also sees potential in his young guards. Lots of it, in some cases.
"I think (Lawson is) in kindergarten right now, but I think he could go to grad school and graduate magna cum laude," Williams said. "He has a chance to be really good, but right now he is so new into everything it's hard to evaluate.
"He can get so, so much better. He's got to develop a much better work ethic and toughness, but he's got some gifts that a lot of people don't have. If he does do those other things and gets extremely focused and works hard, he'll be a heck of a graduate student when he gets done here."