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Deconstructing the reconstructed Tar Heels' fall

The UNC Tar Heels opened the season ranked No. 11 but have been overmatched frequently. The reasons are plentiful.

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com

CHAPEL HILL After perhaps the most stunning loss of Roy Williams’ tenure at North Carolina, there were no words in the locker room. Just quiet. This was 13 months ago, after a 90-57 defeat at Florida State – the worst defeat of Williams’ 10 years as UNC’s head coach.

His players sat quietly, their expressions blank and emotionless. Williams met with reporters, and said there was nothing that could be said.

The number 33, the Heels’ margin of defeat, hung for the remainder of the season in their locker room – a permanent reminder. More than a year later, similar losses have become so common that the Tar Heels no longer seem all that surprised.

“I don’t think we’re getting used to losing,” Dexter Strickland, UNC’s senior guard, said following an 87-61 loss Saturday at Miami. “I wouldn’t say that. But I think we’re getting used to not responding well. We’re not responding against good teams. Something has to change.”

Saturday’s loss was the Tar Heels’ worst this season, and the third-worst under Williams. Already this season, UNC has lost by 11 against Butler, which led by 28 points. The Heels lost by 24 at Indiana, by 18 at Texas and by 12 at N.C. State, which also led by 28 before UNC rallied.

It hasn’t all been bad for UNC, which enters its game at No. 2 Duke on Wednesday night with a 6-4 ACC record. Still, it’d be difficult to describe UNC’s season as anything better than a disappointment.

Even after losing four players in the NBA draft, the Tar Heels began the season ranked No. 11. But the Heels fell out of the poll in December and haven’t been back. UNC’s absence is hardly the only way to measure its struggles.

The Tar Heels have often appeared overmatched. They rank sixth nationally in possessions per game but have struggled to score at times. Defensively, there has been no shortage of lapses, like the ones Miami exploited Saturday.

Questions seem to outweigh explanations. The most general ones: What’s wrong? How did they arrive at this point and what’s holding them back?

“I don’t know how to answer that question,” James Michael McAdoo, the sophomore forward, said Saturday. “We know what we’re capable of doing. We’ve shown it at times. But like coach says – we’ve just got to be ready to compete for 40 minutes. And when we do that, we’re a heck of a team.

“When we don’t, you see what happens with games like (Saturday).”

‘Can’t just outrun teams’ any more

All around McAdoo, UNC’s players dressed and quietly packed their bags. But amid their silence was also a sense of frustration.

The defeats are troubling because they keep happening.

“You got to think of it,” Strickland said. “We don’t have Harrison (Barnes). We don’t have Tyler Zeller, John Henson. We can’t just rely on somebody just to – we can’t just outrun teams, play OK defense but outscore them. We can’t do that. We have to bring the whole package, and we’re not doing that.”

Strickland touched on the most obvious reason for UNC’s deficiencies. Barnes, Zeller and Henson are in the NBA. So, too, is Kendall Marshall, the point guard who rewrote UNC’s assists records.

It was only about a year ago around this time that Williams started to think Marshall might leave early.

“It caught us off guard, but not at the end,” Williams said last week. “I mean, we’re sitting here in September, October, (and) said boy, he played great at the end of his freshman year. But there was no one that would say he was going to be the 13th pick (in the NBA draft) – no one. And if somebody tells you they did, they’re a liar.”

Williams told a story about a conversation he shared at some point last season with an “NBA guy,” who told Williams he wasn’t sure Marshall would ever play in an NBA game. As last season progressed, though, Williams started to realize Marshall’s rising stock.

“As we went along, (I) said, guys, Harrison’s probably going to go, and Z’s going to graduate and my gosh, who’s playing better than Kendall Marshall?” Williams said. “And so you think about it. And I thought he was going to be the Bob Cousy Award winner as the best point guard in the country. So things change.”

Perhaps Marshall’s greatest attribute was making teammates better. The Tar Heels’ offense transformed when he became the starting point guard midway through the 2010-11 season.

Williams admitted last week that he sometimes wonders “what if,” the same as fans do.

“I think it,” he said. “I’m human. But I’m not going to waste any time on it. The one would have gotten me is, man, what if Sean May had come back, and he and Tyler (Hansbrough) – and what if Marvin (Williams) had come back.”

Pieces there, but puzzle not solved

But what if Marshall had come back? How much better would the Heels’ offense be with him running the break, setting up McAdoo in the interior and Reggie Bullock on the wing? How much could Marcus Paige, the Heels’ freshman point guard, have benefited from a season learning from and watching Marshall?

The what-ifs don’t stop there. What if Larry Drew II hadn’t abruptly left during the middle of the 2010-11 season? His departure cleared the way for Marshall, but Marshall might not have developed so quickly, and left so early, were it not for Drew’s absence.

And what about the Wear twins?

Travis and David Wear, the twin forwards in their junior seasons at UCLA, would now be UNC seniors had they not transferred in 2010. They are combining to average nearly 20 points per game this season.

Attrition has helped lead the Tar Heels to mediocrity – at least relative to their standard – but so, too, have recruiting misses. Since Harrison Barnes arrived in 2010, McAdoo is the only other top-10 prospect, according to ESPN, to sign during the past two recruiting cycles.

When UNC faced a talent exodus after the 2004-05 season, the Tar Heels welcomed Hansbrough. After failing to make the NCAA tournament in 2010, Barnes and Marshall – along with Bullock – arrived several months later. UNC has relied heavily on freshmen this season, but they’ve been slower to develop than past classes.

For a variety of reasons, then, some current Tar Heels are experiencing something they rarely have: losing.

“I’ve never really been on a team that lost,” Bullock, a junior, said Saturday. “Like last year, (and) my first year, we were more talented than teams. We could score the ball a lot easier. And this year, it’s a lot more challenging to get (wins).

“It’s just not a one-man show, or a two-man show or a three-man show. Everybody has to compete together to get the (win) because we are a totally different team as last year and my freshman year. We definitely have the talent, but we have to do the things that those teams didn’t to get Ws.”

Williams has demanded more urgency from players. He has preached playing smarter. There are indications that, months into the season, he’s still searching for the combination who will deliver what he wants.

Against Miami, for instance, Williams used 20 lineup combinations.

“If you’re getting your tail beat by 26, I don’t think you can stay with the same lineup,” he said. “I think you’ve got to try to keep changing some things … you can’t just sit there and say, ‘Oh well, let’s just wait until the bus is ready to leave and get on the plane and go home.’ We’re going to try to do something.”

Williams has tried many things, but since the ACC play started, he hasn’t changed his starting lineup. UNC’s starting five of Desmond Hubert, McAdoo, Bullock, Strickland and Paige played less than five minutes together Saturday, but Williams said Monday that “they’re the five best” and that in practice they’d earned their starting positions.

Still, translating practice success to games has been problematic. After the loss Saturday, Strickland and his teammates said the same issues – slow starts, offensive inefficiency, lack of communication on defense – continue to preclude the Tar Heels from becoming the team they believe they can be.

Strickland thought things would be different by now.

“I didn’t expect these kinds of struggles at all,” he said. “We’re not playing well, obviously. ...

“We’ve just got to put the pieces together in the right way.”

With just eight regular-season games remaining, time is running out for UNC to solve a puzzle it helped created.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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