North Carolina Tar Heels, 1st Quarter Grade: B

The North Carolina Tar Heels are quietly licking their wounds, as they try to avoid the harsh spotlight of academia. The basketball team (along with several other programs within the UNC athletic department) has been widely ridiculed for the shepherding of students through the school’s African-American Studies program in order to keep athletes eligible.

And as they lick their wounds, sitting pretty at #24 in the polls with an RPI of 23 and a strength-of-schedule that rates good enough for 7th; the Tar Heels are primed to improve that standing, and make a run for an NCAA seed that will no doubt help them achieve their birthright: a spot in the Sweet Sixteen. The Tar Heels, after all have made 24 Sweet Sixteen’s since 1975. That’s 60% of opportunities.

Roy Williams may be doing one of his better coaching jobs in the face of all the controversy and vitriol that has caused a divide between the faculty and the athletic department, something not all that uncommon at many institutions of higher learning. He has no 1st round NBA talent on his club (to be drafted next year), unless you count the unlikely possibility of Kennedy Meeks keeping the weight off or Marcus Paige developing a reliable NBA jump shot.

So far the season has offered a mixed bag. Let’s take a look at why the Tar Heels have earned a B for their first quarter grade.

Note: First quarter only deals with the regular season schedule. We’ll call the postseason overtime when we arrive there this Spring.

Why a B?

Three losses, two of which were understandable, and a third which will wind up counting against them when the selection committee seeds the teams for the field of 67 and a half or however many teams they’ve added to bastardize the perfect symmetry of a field of 64.

Losing to Kentucky (RPI #1) at Rupp Arena is almost to be expected as a rite of early season passage. Losing a neutral site game to Butler (RPI 53)  isn’t even that eye-opening of a loss anymore as Butler regularly knocks off somebody decent in a preseason tournament. In UNC’s case it was in the Bahamas.

The loss that really brings things down from a B+/A- start is that eyesore of a defeat to the Iowa Hawkeyes in the B1G challenge. The loss was at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, and Iowa (RPI 101) is likely a mid-tier NIT team this season. That videotape needs to be burned for both squads. Iowa won the game by shooting just 32.7%. UNC of course, not to be outdone, shot just 27.8%. The teams shot a combined 7-of-43 from 3-point range. Ultimately the Hawkeyes were more aggressive inside, earned more FTs, and made 21-of-24. Not a bad formula for winning a battle of attrition on the road in a tough environment.

How Can They Improve Their RPI Before Conference Play?

Beat No. 12 Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic this Saturday in Chicago. That’s B1G country, and a win there would go a long way to erasing memories of the Iowa failure. They need a big game from their starters, which hasn’t always been readily available. With JP Tokoto leading the team in assists, albeit from a pseudo-point forward spot, this lends to speculation surrounding the floor leadership of Marcus Paige who was all-time for UNC last year. Paige constantly made the clutch plays. He was the glue that held the team together after the PJ Hairston malfeasance threatened to derail the season.

A win vs Ohio State is a triple word score as far as the selection committee is concerned. They never need their arm twisted to do UNC favors at bracket time anyway. Other opportunities to bolster the tournament resume include games vs UAB (RPI 311) and William & Mary (146th, and part of a sneaky CAA).

What Does UNC Do Well?

  • They have the 19th ranked offense in the country.
  • They defend the 3 pt shot better than all but seven teams, allowing just 25.7% of makes.
  • They crash the offensive glass. They are 3rd in the country, right behind Louisville. We can go ahead and predict a tussle in that one. Meeks vs Harrell.
  • They share the ball, ranking 13th nationally in assists. Brice Johnson and JP Tokoto are nice hubs at the elbows finding slashers, or looking for open corner shooters.
  • They have Kennedy Meeks who is a high percentage shooter who averages over nine rebounds a game, with a nice mix of offensive and defensive clearances. He’s also an adequate rim protector, averaging just under 1.7 blocks per game. The team needs to find a decent replacement for him during periods of foul difficulty or injury. After losing some weight, Roy is still bringing him along slowly at just 22 minutes a game. His PERs are thru the roof.
  • They have a veteran PG in Marcus Paige, and though his numbers have dipped as opponents have designed game plans to stop him, he still produces with regularity. And I realize I say this the day after he shot 1-for-8 vs UNC Greensboro. As you can see by the Heels’ 23 point win, his contributions were not sorely missed
  • They protect the rim and rank 21st in the country in blocks. There is a flip side to this coin, as you will see below.
  • Coach Williams is spreading the minutes around. Only two players (Paige, Tokoto) average more than 27 minutes. And Roy is challenging his bench early to see what he’s got. Last night’s second-leading scorer was Joel James, who barely averages double-digit minutes. This long-term view should help this UNC version avoid some of the breakdowns it has suffered down the stretch (Kendall Marshall in recent memory) and stay healthy for the Spring.

Where Can The Tar Heels Improve?

  • 3-point shooting. They rank 301st in 3s made per game, and are 287th in total 3s made.
  • Discipline. For all the blocks and offensive rebounding and physical play, the Tar Heels dare you to beat them from the FT line. They foul at 21 per game, and that is 289th in the nation.
  • The FG%, FT% are both in the middle of the national rankings, so the team needs to continue to get to the line for those extra opportunities. Since the 3s aren’t falling, the best thing to do is let Tokoto and Meeks get touches on the block and for Paige to attack more.
  • A little more ball security, they turn the ball over at a clip that ranks them 146th. As defenses in the ACC ratchet up, this number will drop. It’s important to find a second reliable ball-handler. There are presently eight players on the squad who average .75 turnovers or more per game. Nobody is immune.
  • Defense is a little loose for a UNC team. Particularly one with wingspans up front. The team ranks 175th nationally, but again has played a difficult schedule. So this number might just decrease after a steady diet of BC, Wake, and VT games where offense will be the least of UNC’s concerns.

Outlook

Assuming the Heels start conference play with a 9-4 record (pessimistically counting on Ohio State to win that game), then the Heels need to find 11 wins in the league and a tourney win or two to solidify their usual 4 or higher seed in the NCAAs. And here’s how they could possibly achieve that:

Teams UNC plays twice: Duke, NC State, Louisville, Georgia Tech. Admittedly not easy. They need to pull splits against the Devils and Cardinals, and do their best to sweep GT and NC State. I’m banking on 4-4 out of this group.

UNC’s solo home games; Notre Dame, VT, Florida State, Syracuse, UVA (This is also not the easiest, but with some Swofford home-cooking, UNC should go 3-2)

UNC’s solo road matches: @Clemson, @Wake, @ Pitt, @Miami, @ BC  (The Heels should sweep this set, but allowing for one stinker, that leaves UNC at 11-7 in ACC play)

They would need to win at least a quarterfinal game in the ACC Tournament to get to their usual reserved spot in some regional bracket’s top four seeds.

The Week Ahead

After opening up a can on UNC-Greensboro last night, UNC will spend the week preparing for the nationally-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in Chicago as part of a small elite tournament sponsored by CBS. They will not play again for a week after that.

Have a great finish to the week everyone, and check back in as I am going to be posting these until I am exhausted (I believe I am over halfway through now!).

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