What’s Wrong With UNC?

For the first time since 2009, North Carolina has started Atlantic Coast Conference play with an 0-2 record.  In 2009, the Tar Heels opened with losses to Boston College and Wake Forest.  They also went on to win the National Championship.

This is not 2009.  North Carolina entered that first conference game against Boston College with a 13-0 record, with convincing wins against Kentucky, Michigan State, and Notre Dame.  This year’s team lost to Butler, Indiana, and Texas before this week’s games against Virginia and Miami.  So now the question around Tobacco Road is “What is wrong with UNC?”

I’d love to present a bullet list (or slideshow, Bleacher Report style) of three quick fixes for Tar Heel fans, so that they could email it to Roy Williams or write into The Daily Tar Heel and North Carolina could return to the top of the ACC heap.  However, the team’s flaws are many, and pretty heavily interwoven.  Simply put, this just isn’t a very good team that should be expected to live up to the “hype” and expectations of most North Carolina teams.

Let’s start with James Michael McAdoo.  He struggled for most of his freshman year, but shined during the postseason as his minutes increased following John Henson’s wrist injury.  He was voted a preseason All-ACC player, expected to thrive in a starter’s role after his finish to the 2012 season.

Instead, he has most often been labeled by television analysts during games as the team’s “most likely pro prospect.” This is merely a polite way to say “He isn’t playing to his potential and isn’t the best player on this team.”  McAdoo is turnover-prone, averaging three per game.  He is the Heels’ leading scorer, but only by virtue of shooting the most.  And since his playing style is neither “wing shooter” nor “back-to-the-basket big man,” he doesn’t force defenses to respect either.

In North Carolina’s toughest games this season, McAdoo has struggled. Last night, he was 5-for-14 from the field.  4-for-15 against Indiana, 5-for-13 against UNLV.  It’s easier to see how he can lead the Tar Heels in scoring when you understand just how often he shoots, even when he’s struggling.  He’s also not an overly physical player, which means he doesn’t benefit from trips to the free throw line.

The team’s greatest strength is its perimeter shooting. Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald have proven to be threats from beyond the arc, and P.J. Hairston, while inconsistent coming from the bench, can have flashes of brilliance.  However, of the three, only Hairston is a reasonable threat to drive to the basket and force a defense to react.  None of these players are a dynamic guard, a la Virginia Tech’s Erick Green, who can get his expected offensive output regardless of what a defense does.

Against Miami last night, for example, Bullock finished the first half with nine points, 3-for-5 from beyond the arc.  In the second half, he missed on all three of his three-point attempts, adding only two more points to his final tally.  As a whole, the Tar Heels only attempted seven three-pointers, making two.  Without their primary tool available, North Carolina was lost offensively.  Overall, they were 11-for-33 from the field in the second period.  Against Virginia, UNC only made 29.4% of their three point attempts … and this has been a trend in their losses all season.

The fifth slot in North Carolina’s lineup has been a revolving door.  Each candidate for the position offers a strong reason for and against their placement in that slot.  Freshman Brice Johnson, statistically, is the more appealing candidate (and is getting more minutes).  He leads the team in field-goal percentage and has also proven to be a capable defensive player.  However, he is also a defensive liability at times, as the 6’9”, 187 pound Johnson can be bullied by larger opponents.  So he must be replaced at times by Desmond Hubert (the usual starter) and Joel James, who offer size at the expense of being black holes offensively when compared to Johnson.

So who is North Carolina’s best player? Maybe it’s McAdoo, if he could limit the turnovers and take better shots. Or maybe it’s Bullock, but he can be so easily erased with a defensive gameplan.  Could it be Brice Johnson? Maybe he should get more minutes. But what if he gets stuck defending Alex Len or Mason Plumlee?

Without a stand-out talent leading the way, North Carolina is simply a good team.  At least good in relation to the majority of Division I teams. The Tar Heels, of course, had no trouble against the McNeese States of their non-conference schedule.  They might even be able to turn around and pick up enough conference wins to finish in the top half of the standings.

However, many expect North Carolina to be better than that, simply because they are North Carolina.  They were projected to finish third in the conference during the preseason despite losing senior Tyler Zeller and NBA Draftees Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Kendall Marshall.

Ultimately, it doesn’t seem likely that this team can finish third in the conference.  Duke and NC State are better teams right now. Miami made their case last night that they are also better. Florida State will get that chance Saturday. Third place was probably a lofty goal, in hindsight, but it was never heavily second-guessed … because this is North Carolina.

Simply, this team is a good team, not a great one.  That would be okay for most, but it will be seen as a failure (barring a surprising turn-around) … because this is North Carolina.  It can be a blessing. It can also be a curse.

And there is a lot of cursing in Chapel Hill these days.

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