Monday, December 16, 2013

Are The Tar Heels A Title Contender?

We are in the middle of December but the question must be asked: Is North Carolina a title contender?

Yes.  But you never know.

No team in the nation can boast a trio of wins like the Tar Heels.  UNC has beaten the preseason No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the nation.  First, they beat defending champion (and then-No. 3) Louisville in a neutral site game in Connecticut.  Not only did they beat the Ville, they beat them going away.  About 10 days later, they went into Michigan State ... the then-No. 1 team in the nation ... and demolished the Spartans.  This past Saturday they beat then-No. 11 Kentucky and their stable of freshman and the "greatest class in NCAA history".

It shouldn't even be a question, right?  North Carolina should probably be ranked at least in the top three right now and have the nation shivering in fear.


UNC bookended their Louisville win with a home loss to Belmont and a loss at UAB as well as a lesser showing against Richmond the night before their win over the Cardinals.  How's that happen?

That's where the team is at.  They are obviously good enough to beat anyone.  Not only have they beaten title contenders Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky, they'll get to play Syracuse and Duke as well.  They won't be scared of anyone.  However, this team has gaping holes right now which makes everyone not scared of them.

How did they lose to Belmont?  They missed 26 of 48 free throws in that three point loss.  This is a very bad free throw shooting team (61%).  If you take out leading scorer Marcus Paige's 89% FT shooting, the rest of this team is a horrid 55%.   UNC, which is typically one of the best scoring teams in the nation every season, is just 76th in points.

The most unbelievable stat of all?  North Carolina has made 25 three-point shots all season long.  Only South Carolina and Louisiana-Monroe have made less.  However, UNC's 2.7 threes-per-game average is the worst in college basketball.  Yes, 351st.  Of the 25 threes they've made, Paige has made 21 of them.

The lack of threes make it tough for UNC to make comebacks if they are down (which happened against UAB) and the lack of free throw shooting makes closing out games tough (Belmont).  The shining light on all this is that, again, they've won the three biggest games on their schedule despite this and the fact that P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald have sat all season awaiting the judgments on their eligibility.

Those two could drastically change those huge gaps.  Hairston was the Heels leading scorer last season and, alone, hit 2.6 threes a game (at a 40% clip).  That would double the Heels' output right away ... and he did that on a team that had other guys (namely Reggie Bullock) who was also shooting a lot from distance.  Hairston would come in a be the go-to scorer with unlimited range and who would (a) free up Paige to make more threes as well as (b) space the floor to make the improving frontline scorers jobs easier.  Hairston was also a 78% free throw shooter last season and he'd most likely get to the line a lot more than anyone outside of James Michael McAdoo.

McDonald isn't the same class of talent as Hairston, but he's a fifth year senior who has been a distance shooter for Roy Williams.  Last year, he hit 36% of his threes and was a 79% free throw shooter (though he gets to the line a lot less).  Both of these guys would drastically help fill those gaping holes.

They'd also settle down the Heels' rotations.  Right now, the Heels are starting freshman Nate Britt alongside Paige to make a very small and thin backcourt.  Britt has been forced to play major minutes at the point guard spot as a freshman and forced Paige to play out of position at the off-guard.  It has helped in transition as there are essentially two point guards on the floor, but that has really hurt the depth and forced both players to have to play major minutes. It has also forced Williams to play a "big" lineup with J.P. Tokoto (the starting small forward) at the shooting guard spot, McAdoo (the starting power forward) at the small forward spot along side either Britt or Paige at point and a combination of two big men on the front line.

Hairston would come in immediately and be a starter at either the shooting guard or small forward.  McDonald would most likely still come off the bench to be Hairston and Tokoto's backup.  That means the Heels could employ this lineup:

C-Joel James

Tokoto deserves to stay in the starting lineup.  He's played very well and he's been a great defender as well as a guy that's really gotten Ol' Roy's transition game working.  The backcourt of Paige and Hairston is a scoring nightmare with few off-guards that could match Hairston's strength.

The bench rotation would be a lot more stout.  Britt would come in and spell Paige, McDonald would back up Hairston and Tokoto, with the big man rotation of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, Desmond Hubert, Jackson Simmons and Isiah Hicks coming in to wear out the opponents.  It allows Williams to have different kinds of lineups.  He could go with a quick scoring lineup of Britt, Paige, Hairston, McAdoo and Johnson.  He can run that big lineup of Paige, Hairston, McAdoo, Johnson and James.  Maybe a quick three point lineup of Paige, Hairston, McDonald, McAdoo and a big man.  Way more options than this current team.

In a season that doesn't really have any dominant team, the Heels have as good a shot as anyone if they can shore up that free throw shooting and more threats from deep.  After all, they have beaten the favorites already.  If they can claim a high seed ... maybe a first weekend of the tournament in Raleigh would help.  A second weekend in New York or Memphis (or anywhere) would be nice.

All that could mean nothing.  Hairston and McDonald could lose their eligibility and this is the team we are rolling with.  That's fine.  The pair could come in and mess up some of the roles this team has worked hard to define.  That happens.  This has been a season filled with unknowns.  What is known is that this Tar Heels team will have an interesting roller coaster ride of a season that will most likely end with a bid to the NCAA Tournament appearance.

Once there ... who knows?

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