This one stuck to the script. Virginia’s slow pace and physicality on defense gave UNC’s young players the trouble most analysts predicted as UNC tallied their lowest total of the season, attempted only 50 field goals (20 less than their average), shot 37% from the field and generally looked lost.
But it would be wrong to blame all of that on Virginia. With the way they were playing, the Tar Heels wouldn’t have scored on anyone, Tony Bennett-coached or not. “I don’t think I want my 6’10 freshman big man taking fade-away jumpers,” said commentator (and former Dukie) Jason Williams, making the understatement of the century after a Joel James miss.
But it’s hard to blame James when his senior leader, Dexter Strickland, is doing the same. UNC’s best slasher but also a possible candidate for weakest shooter, Strickland jacked up fifteen footers all night. Down three with two and a half minutes left (in what now feels like the biggest play of the game) Dexter again decided it was best to employ his shaky fade-away jumper. The shot bricked off side iron and Virginia responded with eight straight points to put the game out of reach. Strickland—UNC’s only hope to get ever to the rim in the half-court set—finished his twenty-eight minutes without drawing a free throw.
If the Tar Heels continue to execute this poorly, cries for PJ Hairston and Brice Johnson to see more playing time are only going to grow, as both scored on their first shot immediately after coming into the game. The player currently keeping Brice on the bench, Desmond Hubert, did match Johnson in almost every statistical category, but that doesn’t mean much when you consider Johnson spent half as many minutes on the court. Brice remains one of Roy’s most productive players (by far) when he can get in the game — leading the team in points scored per minute on the season.
The common argument for Johnson’s lack of playing time has been his inconsistent defense, but that reasoning begins to erode when the rest of the Tar Heels aren’t holding their own on that side of the court either. UNC’s defense allowed easy points at the basket all night and Roy’s Boys haven’t been this devoid of a shot blocker since at least 2008.
The Heels are going to have to make up for their lack of defense at the rim with some semblance of toughness if they want to make any noise this season. “Tough” is an intangible buzzword that gets thrown around too much these days, but when you’re outrebounded, out-stealed, out-blocked, and out-free-throwed, it’s hard to argue with.
No one expects a young team to play tough on the road this early but players like McAdoo and Strickland are going to have simply play smarter basketball. The Tar Heels are plenty talented—dangerous at times even—and can still make a run if they start doing the little things.
One Tar Heel who seems to get it at this point is Reggie Bullock, who validated Roy Williams’ statement last week that he has been the Heels’ best player. Bullock was on fire from the beginning and finished with 22 points on 7 of 9 shooting, five rebounds, no turnovers and huge bucket after bucket down the stretch.
The Tar Heels cannot afford weak games out of the junior wing. Period. Bullock has shown a propensity to hit some big shots in his career, and that’s going to have to continue.
Sunday night was foreshadowing for what can happen to a young team, but that doesn’t have to follow the Tar Heels all season. This one is as cliched as it is true: UNC just has to play better. All the talent is there. In the end the Tar Heels’ fate will be determined by their decision-making.
You can follow Jordan on Twitter @BlackFalcon_net