It’s not unusual for Chapel Hill to be abuzz this time of year over several local sports teams. It is, however, weird that Carolina Basketball is not one of them.
UNC field hockey played for yet another national championship two weeks ago, losing to Princeton 3-2. The Tar Heel men’s soccer team is a solid favorite over 16-seed Indiana tonight on Fetzer Field at 6 p.m. (on WCHL) to reach the College Cup and try to defend its 2011 NCAA championship. The women’s team is already in the soccer Final Four, facing top-seed Stanford in San Diego later tonight (on ESPNU) for a chance to play for UNC’s and Coach Anson Dorrance’s 22nd national championship Sunday afternoon.
And Carrboro High School football, the modern-day version of Remember the Titans, has this town atwitter (even if you don’t tweet). The Jaguars, 15-0, are more like the Mighty Mites with only 28 players on the varsity roster, many going both ways for Coach Jason Tudryn’s tough guys. They’ll try to complete their dream season Saturday night at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh over South Iredell to win the state 2AA championship. And, remember, Carrboro High has been around only seven years and lost like its first 20 games.
Usually in late November, the big story on the back burner is Carolina Basketball, which has carved up several turkeys on the early season schedule and posted a notable win or two. So far the Tar Heels are 5-2, heading into Saturday night’s home game against UAB, coached by Roy Williams’ former player and long-time assistant Jerod Haase. But after their heroes were blown out by Butler in the first half in Maui and at Indiana in the second half, Tar Heel fans at best are taking a wait-and-see attitude about their 2012-13 team.
Unlike local rivals Duke, which has vaulted to 7-0 and No. 2 in the country behind three senior starters and one great freshman, and N.C. State, which has lots of talent if not toughness at this point of the season, Carolina lacks both leadership and a leathery attitude on the court. Not to mention a low-post game and outside scoring. The Tar Heels are looking far more like the 2010 NIT team than the 2006 surprise, both of which followed national championship clubs that lost most of their scoring, rebounding and passing to graduation and/or early NBA departures.
It’s not like we expected less. More than 50 years of unrealistic expectations around here makes anyone who puts on that light blue and white uniform look good – until they look otherwise on the court. And this team has more problems than either of the aforementioned leftovers. So far, it cannot score much from inside, settling for lower-percentage jump shots, and is guilty of the worst outside shot selection I can remember of any Williams team.
While the overall stat sheet is respectable, the box scores from the two losses are more telling. In the first half against Butler, when Carolina fell behind by 29 points, the Heels shot 32 percent; in the second half at Indiana, when they missed 17 of their first 18 attempts, they wound up shooting 28 percent. In both games, Carolina had more turnovers than assists, a sure sign that something is amiss. “Good kids trying to do too much,” Williams offers.
Maybe his 10th Tar Heel team can get healthier and happier over the six-game stretch (five at home) heading into ACC play on January 6 at Virginia. After the UAB Blazers (4-3) come East Tennessee (1-3); undefeated but untested East Carolina (5-0) coached by former UNC star Jeff Lebo; a trip to Texas, which is 4-2 but lost to the two teams (Mississippi State and Chaminade) that Carolina blew out in Maui; McNeese State (2-3) and a rematch with UNLV (4-1), which dealt then-undefeated and top-ranked Carolina its first loss last season in Las Vegas.
Of concern is sophomore P.J. Hairston, who missed the Indiana game with a sprained knee and is uncertain for the immediate future. Although Hairston shot only 24 percent from 3-point range last year, he is off to a better start this season, shooting higher percentages from near and far and putting up better numbers in the clutch. He also gives Williams the best option in the small lineup that forged a nice comeback against Butler and helped pull away from Long Beach State on the way to Maui. Otherwise, Roy goes with green freshman J.P. Tokoto.
While Marcus Paige looks like he will develop into a nice point guard, who can score more than departed Kendall Marshall, his wing men have to get their roles down better. Senior leader Dexter Strickland is a great defender and absolute blur on the break, but he is not an outside jump-shooter. He has missed 7 of his 8 three-point attempts, otherwise is shooting close to 50 percent. And junior Reggie Bullock IS the outside scorer who has to, well, score more from outside. So far, Bullock is hitting 47 percent of his 3s but is 2-for-9 in the two losses against better defenses. He’s also nursing a sore right (shooting) hand from the IU game.
Inside scoring may be the unfixable problem, at least for this season until big Joel James and smooth Brice Johnson mature and recruiting reinforcements arrive next fall. Sophomore Desmond Hubert is getting the start at center but has taken only seven shots and missed all seven of his free throws. Obviously, he’s not in there at the end. And James Michael McAdoo, though more talented, could be facing the same problems that befell Deon Thompson in 2010 after losing his NBA drafted teammates. Getting all the attention in the post as opposed to the fifth scoring option means having to elevate your game and aggressiveness. Thompson could not make the conversion from role player. So far, McAdoo runs the floor and shoots the face up far better than putting his butt to the basket and making a spin or power move.
“Check with me in 60 days,” Williams said before the embarrassment at Indiana. That takes us near the end of January and deep into ACC play. Former coach Bill Guthridge used to say, “If you don’t have it together by February, you probably aren’t getting it together.”
So there is time. But it looks like the learning curve is longer than the Chapel Hill cheering section is used to.