North Carolina coach Roy Williams said it was both impressive and nerve-racking, watching the big men for Duke and Wake Forest butt heads (and everything else) on television Sunday night.
"I just kept seeing [Chas] McFarland tip it in, and Miles and Mason [Plumlee] and [Kyle] Singler getting back and dunking it in," he said. "It was sort of scary watching that part of it, because we haven't, ourselves, dominated the backboards against another big team."
Or dominated another big ACC team, period. For all of the handwringing about No. 24 UNC's inconsistent perimeter play, the Tar Heels' frontcourt - which was supposed to be the strength of the team, and faces another big challenge against the Demon Deacons tonight - has been coming up short, as well.
In the last two losses, UNC starting forwards Deon Thompson and Ed Davis each averaged only eight points and six rebounds and attempted only a combined 10 free throws. They were consistently muscled out of the lane by Clemson and Georgia Tech's big men and often weren't in good position to begin with. When they did get the ball, they didn't make strong moves.
"Out-physicaled, outplayed, more aggressive, less aggressive - it's a how-you-say-it kind of thing," Williams said.
And things could get even more difficult tonight if Davis, the team's second-leading scorer and top rebounder, can't play because of a sprained left ankle. Williams said Davis would be limited in Tuesday's practice, and his status would be a game-time decision.
Considering UNC reserve 7-footer Tyler Zeller is already sidelined by a stress fracture in his foot, that's bad news when facing the likes of Wake big men McFarland (7-0), Al-Farouq Aminu (6-9), Tony Woods (7-0) and David Weaver (7-0).
"Our big guys are an integral part of our success," Deacons coach Dino Gaudio said after his team practiced at the Smith Center on Tuesday afternoon. "Farouq has been playing really well throughout the year; thank goodness Chas McFarland is starting to come around and play like he's capable of playing. Those guys are really important to what we do, and they have to play well for Wake Forest to play well."
UNC's big men - including the Wear twins and small forward Will Graves, who may spend some time in the post if Davis sits out - also have to play well for the Tar Heels to dig out of their 1-2 ACC hole. That means they have to be tougher (i.e., not letting foes hip them out of the lane) and more focused (i.e., no lackadaisical passes on inbounds plays or otherwise).
First and foremost, Williams said, Carolina's forwards need to position themselves correctly - and their teammates need to get them the ball.
"Tyler Hansbrough demanded the basketball; he made you want to throw him the ball," Williams said. "He would run in and put his body against somebody, where he wanted to be. Since day one, we've been trying to emphasize to our big guys, 'Give us that option of throwing it inside to you.' We've been emphasizing it since the first day, and I think now they're starting to understand it even more."
Second, Williams wants his forwards to get to the free-throw line more. The rule of thumb with Hansbrough, the four-time All-American who is now an NBA rookie, was that if he did not get 20 shots combined from the field and free-throw line, the team was doing something wrong. UNC's games have averaged fewer possessions than last season, so Thompson and Davis might not get quite that many, but it should be close.
"We definitely do need to get to the line more," Thompson said Saturday. "... We did a little bit better job of getting the ball to myself and Ed tonight, but we've got to do an even better job. And it's not just on my teammates; it's on me and Ed to demand the ball more and post up deeper, so that way you catch the ball and make easier moves."
Williams said he did see some improvement from the loss at Clemson (during which Thompson and Davis combined for eight points and zero foul-shot attempts) to the Georgia Tech defeat (24 points, 10 free-throw attempts). But his Tar Heels still have a way to go.
"I still believe that our big guys can determine the outcome of some games, and I think that they will," Williams said. "And I hope that we start tomorrow night."