Despite a few questionable losses early in the season, many college basketball fans were surprisingly impressed with the play of the Tar Heels. However, it seems as though now the feeling has switched to disappointment following the Tar Heels’ most recent performances. The Heels have lost three straight games and have sole possession of last place in the ACC, and the buzz around Tobacco Road is that the Heels may not have enough fire power to even qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Many UNC fans were disappointed in the poor performance during the Syracuse game, but this is definitely not the most disappointing performance this season by any stretch. Yes I know; the Heels only scored 45 points in the game, the lowest ever by a Roy Williams coached team. I know, I know… the Heels shot just 39 percent from the floor, made only two out of 12 three pointers, and were just 3-9 from the stripe. But that’s what Syracuse does: they slow the game down with their 2-3 zone defense, create a bunch of turnovers with their length and athleticism, and as a result their games are almost always low-scoring affairs.
The biggest flaw that Syracuse revealed of the Tar Heels, in front of more than 31,000 fans at the Carrier Dome and a national TV audience, is the lack of playmakers for the Tar Heels. In the Heels’ defense, if you took away the best player from every team in the country, every teams’ ability to produce high-quality basketball would certainly be reduced the way the Heels’ has without P.J. Hairston. But the Heels can’t make excuses: they proved they can beat any opponent in the country without him, and need to figure out how they were able to do so earlier in the year.
My mom recently asked me “What is going on with them? Are they not as good individually as everyone thought? Is it team chemistry? Or is it Roy?” The only way I could think to respond was “It’s a combination of all three.”
Although Hairston was kicked off the team, Heels fan were celebrating the return of Leslie McDonald from NCAA suspension. However, I believe that not only has McDonald’s return messed up the team chemistry, but he hasn’t been able to complete the only task expected of him: to make jump shots at a high level. In the seven games McDonald has played since his return, he is shooting just 35% from the field (22-63), 32% from three-point range (12-38), and has made only 55% of his free throws (12-22). Prior to McDonald’s return, everyone seemed to know their role and the offensive chemistry seemed to be in pretty good shape. While McDonald does stretch the floor and force defenses to defend further away from the basket, everyone seems a little less confident in their role on offense, and as a result the Heels are just 3-4 since his return.
Although this year’s team is full of potential, it is unquestionably less-talented than Tar Heels teams of year’s past. Some say “What do you mean they don’t have talent? They have multiple high school McDonald’s All Americans on the team!” While this may be the case, high school recruiting is based mostly on potential and sometimes guys just don’t pan out. I am not suggesting that these players won’t be any good, but the guys who take up the majority of the minutes for the Heels are still underclassmen and need time to develop.
Two of the McDonald’s All-Americans on this year’s squad are freshmen Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, who I think will both be very good players and potential future NBA draft picks. I already believe Meeks is the Heels’ best post player and he has displayed great hands, the ability to finish around the basket, and a high basketball IQ. Although Hicks hasn’t produced much to this point, he arguably has as much upside as any player in the ACC. Standing at 6’8”, Hicks was forced to play in the post throughout his high school career and now because of the size differential between high school and college, has been asked to step out to the perimeter some and play more of a small forward/ power forward position. Give this kid time to develop his outside game and his ball-handling, and he could be dominant by the time he leaves UNC.
Roy admitted in an interview earlier this week that he has to do a better job of coaching this group of guys, and I agree with him. While we have seen more talented UNC teams in the past, there is still a bunch of talent on this year’s team. So far this season Roy has been somewhat uninventive with his substitutions and lineups, and I think this needs to change. It seems he plays everyone generally the same amount of minutes each game and even subs them in and out at similar junctures which can sometimes prevent players from getting in the flow of the game. On some nights certain guys are playing well and others aren’t, and you have to play the guys who are in a rhythm as opposed to sticking with a routine.
I have been hard on James Michael McAdoo this season, and while he still is not playing to the level of a once-projected 5th overall pick in the NBA draft, he has been solid for the Heels, averaging 14 points and 7 rebounds per game. Everyone in the country knows how dangerous Marcus Paige can be when he is making jumpshots, but he hasn’t been able to do so at a high level the last few games. Confidence is the most important thing when shooting a basketball, and Paige needs to find that confidence he had early this season because the Heels desperately need him to lead this team.
The Tar Heels have started 0-3 in the ACC and have dropped to 10-6 overall after going a measly 3-4 in their last seven games. The Tar Heels currently have the third best recruiting class in the country for next season, but I don’t think it is time to write off this season for the Heels. We have seen the quality basketball the Heels are capable of playing, and if McDonald and Paige can start knocking down shots and the team continue to build their chemistry, this team is capable of surprising anyone. The Heels’ next game is Saturday, January 18 against a struggling Boston College team. The Tar Heels need to have amnesia as some say, forget what has happened recently, and focus on reaching a one-game winning streak against Boston College.