Thad: Core Improvements

Thirty-five years have passed since a Division I college basketball team finished a season as undefeated national champions. Put another way, about 10,000 basketball teams since 1976 have embarked on the quest of winning every game on their schedules, only to fail.

Make that 10,001. Any aspiration Tar Heel players and fans might have had for duplicating the perfect season of 1956-57 came crashing down Saturday night in Las Vegas in Carolina's deserved ten-point defeat to UNLV.

This was not a matter of rolling snake eyes, or any other form of bad luck. The Tar Heels lost the game because of a prolonged stretch in the second half in which Vegas consistently created and converted field goal opportunities, and the Tar Heels did not. UNLV shot 47 percent in the second half, including seven three-point shots, for an effective FG mark of 57 percent.

That kind of defense will often get you beat. Yet ironically, in the latter stages of Saturday's game, Vegas did Carolina a favor by continuing to shoot aggressively from the outside, and the law of averages did kick in as Rebel shooters began cooling off a bit. But that ultimately didn't matter, largely because Carolina did a poor job on the defensive glass, and in particular failed to get key rebounds off long misses that might have started fast breaks . . .

… fast breaks that are particularly crucial on nights when the halfcourt offense isn't particularly fluid or effective. John Henson and Tyler Zeller combined to shoot 5-18 from the field and 6-12 from the line, which is in part a credit to UNLV's defense but also a product of lack of execution and in Zeller's case a somewhat puzzling inability to finish inside in both games over the weekend. If going inside is Plan A, than Plan B perhaps is Harrison Barnes putting on the superman cape and carrying the team. Perhaps hampered by an early ankle problem, that didn't quite happen either.

Plan C is Carolina turning into a jump-shooting team. The Tar Heels do not want to have to turn to Plan C too often this year. If there were any positives coming out of the weekend, however, it is that Plan C is not as desperate a proposition as it would have been a year ago. P.J. Hairston was Carolina's outstanding performer in Las Vegas, draining 8-of-13 three-pointers in two games and tallying 34 points overall.

There are two ways to look at Carolina's defeat against Vegas. One way is to be discouraged that Carolina's dribble-drive defense, helping the helper, defensive rebounding, and closing out on shooters weren't good enough, and that the Tar Heels' veteran players did not perform very efficiently on the offensive end. One might add to that indictment the substandard foul shooting as well as some departures from good shot selection in the second half Saturday. (The Tar Heels shot just 30 percent after the break.)

The other way to look at it is more encouraging: Carolina did not get beat because of some structural deficiency or incapacity in the team that can't be corrected or improved. The main doubt of analysts about the Tar Heels coming into the season was lack of a proven ability to hit the outside shot consistently. This Carolina team is not going to be a prolific three point shooting team overall, and should not try either. But the ability to put the ball in the basket at a high rate from outside is clearly there in the form of Hairston and also (when hot) Reggie Bullock, and it wasn't inability to shoot from outside that got Carolina beat against UNLV.

Instead, it was inadequate performance in core areas of the game, areas which usually should be strengths: defense, rebounding, converting chances inside (which of course includes making free throws). Those things can and will improve markedly, not just against the overmatched but against the tougher opponents too. One way it might get better is in fact taking a few more outside shots to free up room inside, now that players have emerged who can hit them consistently.

The other way it might get better is for the inside players to be stronger and more effective with their individual moves. Henson, Zeller and Barnes weren't at the top of their game Saturday. That doesn't mean Roy Williams is ready to trade them in for replacements. (Unless you count James Michael McAdoo, who provided a needed spark in the second half Saturday but also failed to take advantage of his free throw opportunities.)

The loss more likely means that Williams will be better able to convey a tone of urgency and the importance of improvement and maximum effort and concentration in every practice and game.

There is plenty of precedent in Carolina basketball history for the value of the early-season wake-up call. But to be effective, wake-up calls have to be answered, and that means being honest and taking seriously the reasons Carolina got beat Saturday: because the Tar Heels were convincingly out-executed in the core fundamentals of the game.

A November loss in itself means almost nothing, and potentially teaches a valuable lesson. It is critical, however, that losing not become a habit, and that Carolina come out of the exciting week ahead with a measure of confidence about its ability to compete against other teams with top-notch talent.

That means notching at least one win of two against Wisconsin and Kentucky. More importantly, it means playing better, and showing a bit of character and resolve in response to Saturday's setback.

Thad 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 associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

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