Grading a desperate North Carolina against N.C. State

The Heels needed a big win against N.C. State to snap a three-game skid.

In Sunday’s Herald, I used a Remember the Alamo-esque refrain as a crutch so I could run through a litany of problems that are plaguing the North Carolina Tar Heels this basketball season.

While watching the Heels lose four out of five games and three straight ACC tilts, it is easy to forget that it was just last season that North Carolina laid waste to the NCAA Tournament, winning its second national title in five years.

Still, when you’re North Carolina, three-game losing streaks sound an alarm — a loud one — and it was clear that if the Heels still wanted a chance at making a late-season run for the NCAAs this season, they would have to start with a win at rival N.C. State on Tuesday night.

They got it, and in the process seemed to address many of the issues yours truly brought up on Sunday.*

*Not patting myself on the back, here. Anybody who had seen the team play this season could’ve pointed out the obvious flaws.

So let’s go through things again, taking lines from the column and comparing how the Heels addressed things against the Wolfpack:

He doesn't make anyone forget John Wall, but the Heels need Drew to play well.

For instance, when I watch them bring the ball up the floor, I sometimes shudder at how often the trombone player in the band has a better chance at receiving an overhead pass when the Heels are trying to break the press than any of the actual North Carolina basketball players. This happens a lot, what with the 2009-10 team averaging a killer 16.5 turnovers a game, up four ticks from last season’s national title team.

Maybe it helps that N.C. State’s idea of defense is vastly different than that of say, most good teams in college basketball. OK, so maybe that’s a cheap shot, but the Pack certainly doesn’t try to sit down and guard like Duke or pressure like Clemson.

That said, Larry Drew II looked like a stud against N.C. State and played perhaps his most controlled game of the year at North Carolina’s most desperate time. The 18 points and seven assists were great, but the one turnover was spectacular.

UNC had just 10 turnovers as a team, though that number might’ve been closer to their usual 16.5 had Marcus Ginyard not been able to corral just about every pass that he mishandled — and there were quite a few. If the Heels were playing Duke in the first half Tuesday night, Ginyard would’ve had to have been benched. He simply couldn’t catch the ball, even losing it as he went up for what would have been an uncontested dunk along the baseline.

Still, the Heels were the aggressors on defense for a change, something fans haven’t seen in long stretches for two weeks. (More on defense in a second.)

A physical Deon Thompson?

And then I see Deon Thompson waving fanatically for the ball in the low post.

Oh, wait a minute. Actually, I don’t see that. Hardly ever, anyway. I usually see Thompson 10-12 feet from the bucket, unable to back his defender down to receive any entry pass on the low block. And with the aforementioned ball-control problem, wasting one of those glorious halfcourt possessions by waiting for a soft frontcourt player like Thompson or Ed Davis or Tyler Zeller (before he was hurt) waving for the ball out of position grows tiresome. So are the fadeaway jump shots the once-perceived “best frontcourt in the nation” keeps throwing up. It should be a rule or something — big guys don’t fade.

Simply, the biggest difference of the night.

By far.

Looking back, I may have been a little harsh on Thompson, who is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder on a squad that suffered heavy losses to graduation and the NBA.

Still, he’s been soft this season. No way around it. Too often he’s been muscled off the block, pushed out of position for rebounds, and too lax around the basket. Dunk the ball when you can dunk the ball. Like big guys don’t fade, that should be another hard and fast rule. Finger-rolls are for pretty boys (another should-be rule). And Thompson has been too loose with the ball around the hoop this year.

Against State, though, he was a monster, and looked like the guy who has had hot starts to games in Cameron Indoor Stadium in the past. He looked for his shot — he took 14 field goal attempts and made nine of them — and scored in a variety of ways. In the paint. Off the block. Hard, physical dribble-drives in the lane and throwing it down. His turnaround jumper and dunk in the big second-half run show what he’s capable of doing.

Dude’s got an NBA body. He used it against the Pack, and in the process, helped get Tracy Smith into foul trouble, the biggest momentum shift in the game.

Meanwhile, Ed Davis, who seems to have played this season tentatively, possibly with a wandering eye toward the NBA Draft, answered critics for one night by shaking off an ankle injury and playing in pain in an important ACC game. He responded with 12 points and nine rebounds, coming up with a couple of key buckets in the Heels’ decisive second-half run.

The best of the Heels' freshmen.

And so when I see the Heels try to make the extra pass around the perimeter among a bunch of guys who don’t ever seem all that excited to shoot, even though the team’s shooting percentage is exactly the same as last year and the 3-point percentage is only 2 points less than a year ago, I hang in there.

Big ups to Dexter Strickland, who looks the most ready of any of UNC’s freshmen, most of whom, it looks like now, will probably only be valuable role players on good teams in the future (I’m looking at you Wear twins and Leslie McDonald). Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But Strickland isn’t afraid to at least try to make something happen, and when North Carolina fell behind by five in the second half, he delivered big buckets, driving through all five N.C. State “defenders” before dunking off a turnover. Big plays, and he doesn’t shy away from the stage.

Speaking of perimeter shooting, the Heels still seemed a little hesitant to pull the trigger at times, but Will Graves won’t shy away. Graves isn’t a great shooter, but he seems fearless, and that helps on a maturing team. With his big body on the wing, he could be a matchup nightmare if he ever consistently gets going — he had nine rebounds against State — and Drew also stepped up took a few deep shots. The Heels were 6 of 13 from the arc. Shoot the ball, guys.

Get it together, Marcus.

And so when nobody seems to take on a vocal leadership role on the floor, even though Marcus Ginyard has been a starter almost since he arrived in Chapel Hill five years ago, and the same can basically be said of Thompson, I barely even notice.

Thompson’s off the hook for a little while after his performance.

But Marcus Ginyard just looks lost.

It’s likely he isn’t 100 percent healthy. He looks half a step off — mishandling passes, blowing wide open shots, missing short on 3s — and he’s likely too proud to be too vocal when he isn’t playing well.

But the Heels need him to at least be what he was before this season (and last, when he was hurt). If he can be a defensive stopper, that would be huge. Somebody is going to have to guard Jon Scheyer when he gets hot.

Still, finding a way to the foul line would help, even when you’re going badly. Ginyard didn’t get there once against State.

Roy Williams had a well-timed timeout. Honest. Seriously. I'm not kidding. Stop laughing!

Call timeouts to coax a young team through a tight spot or not, I don’t care. Call a TO to calm your inexperienced team down when they are matched up against a more veteran opponent, or don’t. It doesn’t matter.

Javi Gonzalez went crazy, scoring 15 points in a 4 1/2-minute stretch spanning the halves, and the Pack went from down nine to up five, 43-38, after Gonzalez inexplicably was allowed to rebound a miss in the paint and make a put-back floater.

What did Roy Williams do? He actually called a timeout.

And then came the 22-4 run.*

*I almost missed the run after fainting.

I understand it’s not the Carolina Way to call timeouts when the team seems to be in trouble on the floor. It’s a learning thing, I guess. Dean didn’t do it. Gut didn’t do it. Even Doherty didn’t do it.

And neither does Roy.

But maybe in this ugly stretch, with this young of a team and collection of personalities (that’s a nice way of saying nobody looks like he has truly stepped up to be a team leader), Williams gets that he may have to take his team by the hand through rough stretches of games. Williams has said in the last week that he’s had to do some serious thinking about his coaching, and maybe this kind of in-game, hands-on approach that every other coach in the country does is what this team needs right now.

A couple of quick hitters that didn’t get mentioned in Sunday’s column:

UNC fans haven't really seen this version of John Henson yet. Maybe next year...

John Henson simply isn’t quite ready to contribute in a big way, which at least means he’ll likely be back for his sophomore season and perhaps his junior year. But his two weakside blocks were huge in the second half, and that brings a presence in the paint — which can be extended to the wing because of Henson’s wingspan and athleticism — that the Heels don’t have elsewhere (step it up on defense in the paint, Mr. Davis).

Javi Gonzalez tried to will N.C. State to a win.

North Carolina’s defense was better — after Roy’s big timeout. N.C. State got way, waaaaaaaayyyyyy too many open 3-point looks in the first half and in the first 5 minutes of the second half. Gonzalez made them pay for it, too.

And while Dennis Horner, freshman Scott Wood and Farnold Degand were dreadful from the floor— they were a combined 5-for-24 shooting — they did get enough good looks at the basket.

That said, when a team is held to 29 percent shooting in the second half, the opponent gets credit for that. And while Gonzalez may have spent too much time on the bench in the second half, North Carolina got into passing lanes, created turnovers and got the ball up and down the floor in the kind of transition game fans and Roy Williams want to see.

So, which Heels’ team will continue to show up for the last month of the regular season? It’s a good question, but one that fans can now be assured is being asked in the locker room and at practice. From Thompson: “We had no other option but to win,” he said after the victory. “I don’t even want to think about it.” From Williams: “We got that (fight) Saturday and Sunday in practice. I tried to make it as competitive as it can be and I wasn’t very nice to them and they answered. They really did. I got on them a good bit after practice (Monday). But I think the toughness was there.”

The thing is, the Heels aren’t good enough to forget any of it, and they certainly cannot relax one time the rest of the year. Road games at Virginia Tech and surging Maryland (two places where good UNC teams typically lose) are coming up, as is a home date with Duke before a rematch with the Pack. Road games with Georgia Tech, BC, Wake Forest and Duke remain.

And North Carolina needs a couple of standout wins, too. So far they have one — at home against Michigan State on Dec. 1, a lifetime ago. At 2-3 in the ACC and 13-7 overall, UNC probably needs to go 7-4 the rest of the way (that would make them 20-11 overall and 9-7 in league play) to make the tourney. Maybe 19-12, 8-8 with a good ACC Tournament showing gets them in (that name and following always helps), but there better be extra key wins mixed into that equation.

So, as it stands today, the Tar Heels are squarely on the NCAA bubble.

But give the Heels some credit. A different result and performance against State, and the bubble would be nowhere to be seen.


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Filed under Alex Podlogar, College Basketball, Designated Hitter, N.C. State Wolfpack, NBA, NBA Draft, North Carolina Tar Heels, Sports, Sports columns, The Sanford Herald, UNC Tar Heels

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