Thad: Developmental Step

There are a lot of ways to win (or lose) a basketball game. Contrary to some claims, the current North Carolina team has individuals capable of putting the ball in the basket from all parts of the court with some regularity -- at least against a certain level of competition.

When Carolina played Long Beach State a few weeks ago, the Tar Heels tallied an extraordinary 1.13 points per possession per game -- and gave up almost as many defensively. That was an entertaining game to watch, but not a good model for how this Carolina team can be successful this year in the ACC.

A much better model, if in its way equally one-sided, was Carolina's performance Saturday in Charlottesville. For the first twelve minutes of the game, the Tar Heels sparkled offensively -- jump shots from John Henson, some good perimeter passing, some nice push-ahead baskets. Carolina led 22-13 midway through the half, shooting well over 50 percent. In one signature play, Virginia double-teamed Knox, who adroitly found Watts, who then passed up his own three point effort in favor of a higher probability shot from Bullock in the corner, which in fact went in. Life was good.

But then it got very tough, and at moments flat out bad. The worst part is, much of the start of Carolina's meltdown was self-inflicted. Strickland had Zeller cutting open for a dunk, but rushed his pass and bounced it out-of-bounds instead of into the big man's hands. Marshall had Henson wide-open for what looked like a certain alley-oop dunk, but Henson couldn't handle the pass cleanly and it ended up as an embarrassing miss. McDonald missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have stopped the bleeding. Right before halftime, Drew pressed too quickly to make a play and ended up committing a turnover that resulted in a Virginia free throw and a seven point deficit at halftime. And those are just the bad plays I can remember.

It didn't get any better offensively in the first part of the second half. Over the prolonged middle part of the game, Carolina went from being up 28-21 to down 40-30, a 19-2 "run," although it felt more like a really long dental appointment that would never end. Roy Williams put the "second unit" in for quite a long spell in the second half, and eventually they did start scoring. Trailing 43-32 after Jontel Evans's ridiculous end-of-shot clock trey for Virginia, baskets from Marshall and McDonald and two key free throws from Watts got the score back to manageable 47-40 at the ten-minute mark.

More importantly, the "second" unit played fine defense during that stretch, challenging shots, getting deflections, and coping with the cuts and picks in Tony Bennett's offense.

Then the starting unit came back in at 9:46 and took things up a notch further, allowing just three Cavalier points over the next 6 minutes. And, finally, Carolina started getting it to Zeller and getting to the line. The most obvious indictment of Carolina's offensive performance over the first 30 minutes was that Zeller only had 8 points (and not that many touches) up to that point.

But Carolina seemed more focused on going down low the final part of the game, taking advantage of the bonus and Virginia's worsening foul situation. Down the stretch, Zeller got a key put-back layup, then hit four straight free throws to tie the game at 50. Credit Henson as well for two key baskets, including the go-ahead layup, and Knox for two key free throws as well. 12 of 14 points came from Carolina's "bigs" as the Heels turned that 47-40 deficit into a 54-52 lead (a nice jumper by Barnes was the other basket).

That better offensive effort reflected not only better focus but the cumulative effect over the course of the game of wearing down an opponent's front line. Like a football team's running game that suddenly picks up in the fourth quarter, in the last part of this game Carolina just found it easier and more rewarding to go inside. But what made it all possible was the impressive defensive effort from all ten players. Drew and Henson each made key steals in the comeback, Barnes blocked a shot, and the team as a whole did not concede any offensive rebounds (or commit any turnovers) the last ten minutes.

Of course, having gotten into position to win the game, the Tar Heels still had to close it out, and did so by avoiding turnovers, hitting free throws, and by playing good defense on the final meaningful possession as Virginia tried to drive. They did all of that, with only one significant error, the hurried drive by Strickland to try to feed Zeller that ended up in a rushed, off-balance layup with a minute to go up 3 points.

From a defensive point of view, that was a dominant performance -- holding Virginia to 19 points in the second half, 26 percent shooting, and just six field goals against five turnovers. But it would have gone for naught if the "first" unit had not also been more focused offensively in the final minutes of the game as well. In short, the team as a whole executed under pressure at the end of the game. Making 12 of 14 free throws in the final minutes is the best testament of that.

Consequently, Carolina now has a mental model of how to win a tough road game. It has a mental model of how to come back from down 11 in the second half to win. It has a mental model of how to win despite a prolonged period of offensive frustration. And it even has a mental model of how to overcome not hearing the starting lineup properly announced before the game.

(I was there in Charlottesville and Roy Williams was right to complain about it afterward -- the "introduction" of the Tar Heels, which sounded like the PA mumbling rapidly under his breath at the same time much louder music was blaring -- was ridiculous and disrespectful.)

To be sure, Virginia, especially without Mike Scott, is not one of the better teams in the league, and the Cavaliers' home court advantage in the John Paul Jones arena isn't nearly as intimidating as what University Hall used to be like. (There was an impressive contingent of Carolina fans scattered throughout the upper deck of the arena on Saturday.) Carolina is going to have to execute better offensively in games to come, and try to minimize the self-inflicted problems.

Nonetheless, the Virginia game -- both the win itself and how it happened -- feels like an important step in this team's collective mental development. Carolina's players could have gotten down on themselves and decided this wasn't going to be their day. They decided differently, then went out and made it happen by determined defense and poised execution under pressure. That's a much more impressive feat than dropping lots of points on Long Beach State or St. Francis.

The Tar Heels will try to take the next step forward Thursday against Virginia Tech.

Thad has return to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game: ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and from 1995 to 2005. He's an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

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