Thad: Measuring Sticks

North Carolina faced a unique double challenge in taking on two Top Ten opponents back-to-back.

On paper, playing the No. 1 team away from home should be the toughest possible game. Conversely, in terms of style of play, a defensive-minded, ball-control, good shooting team like Wisconsin represents just about the toughest basketball challenge a team like Carolina could face.

On the face of it, results from this double test were mixed. After all, the Tar Heels won one and lost one, and Carolina did many good and a number of not-so-good things in both contests. At the most basic level, in both games the team displayed competitive heart, a welcome sight after the UNLV game. A simplistic analysis would point to home court as the key reason why Wisconsin was a W and Kentucky and L, and in this case that simplistic analysis would be pretty much right.

But the lasting lessons from these two games can be summed up in two concepts: the measuring stick, and the fine margin. Carolina now has gotten an early test against the most talented opposition the Heels are likely to face this regular season, in a hostile environment. It is no stretch to suggest that if both Kentucky and Carolina develop and perform to their potential this season, the teams could well be on another collision course, this time likely a round (or two) later than the Elite Eight. Indeed, one could almost think of the next four months as a race to see which team will be able to improve fastest by year's end.

There are a lot of positives to take from Saturday. The team showed a significant amount of poise in a road environment. The Tar Heels shot the ball exceptionally well from outside. Perimeter defense and rebounding were significantly improved. And Carolina showed some late-game character, exemplified by the crucial stop and push ahead for a Reggie Bullock three pointer late-on that turned a desperate situation into a winnable game.

The last play was disappointing in two senses: the outcome, and the fact that Harrison Barnes did not get a touch. The way the afternoon had gone, it would have been foolish to bet against Barnes delivering if, for instance, John Henson had seen him and kicked it to him for an open 3 instead of going straight up for a contested jump shot. That said, the basic end-of-half or end-of-game scenario of Marshall trying to create a good chance for Zeller has worked well in the past, and as a general plan it's hard to argue with.

But Saturday Kentucky did a terrific job all day of aggressively pressuring Zeller on every catch near the basket. The senior center is struggling a bit to adjusting to that level of attention. It's not easy to play with a strong 6-10 defender on your back giving little shoves now and then, while at the same time a smaller guard with strong, quick hands is doubling down on you aggressively.

Nonetheless, an inordinate number of Carolina's miscues on Saturday involved trying to feed Zeller, and the swift 7-footer seems to have acquired an unhelpful habit of instinctively taking a dribble too often on his catches. On Saturday he scored more effectively on these occasions in which he got a shot off without a dribble. More of that from Zeller would be welcome; equally important will be improved judgment in making the quick pass out when the double team comes, to keep the ball moving and make the opponent pay for committing two defenders to him.

Carolina did not lose the game simply because of the final possession, however, and the Tar Heels' hot shooting outside did force Kentucky to pay for its collapsing defense inside. The real culprit can be found in the prolonged cold stretch after taking a 56-52 lead with 15 minutes to go, a stretch that saw the Tar Heels go over five minutes without a basket. Carolina played solid defense during that stretch and would even average offensive execution during that time period might well have built a working 8- to 10-point lead, or even better.

Here's a quick possession analysis of what the Tar Heels did with the ball over that time span, starting with over 14 minutes to go: a missed three-pointer from the otherwise terrific P.J. Hairston, three missed shots on a single possession to squander two offensive rebounds, a missed layup by John Henson when he lost control after a promising first step, a missed dunk by Dexter Strickland followed on the same possession by two missed free throws by James Michael McAdoo, a missed jumper by McAdoo followed by a Henson turnover when he was stripped after grabbing the offensive rebound. Then came three shots falling to varying degrees in the "forcing it" category: a driving layup by Kendall Marshall that was blocked, a badly missed fadeaway jumper from behind the backboard by Barnes, and a rushed half-hook by Henson. Henson did finally break the drought with an inside score, preceded by some splendid footwork to get free.

Reviewing that tape, it's difficult to know whether to be frustrated that Carolina left so many potential points on the table during that stretch by failing to convert offensive rebounds, inside shots, and free throws, or to be relieved that the long drought wasn't the result of a bunch of turnovers or ill-advised jumpers from outside. (Individual players forcing it a bit to try to make something happen with a one-on-one move after a long dry spell, which did happen near the end of that spell, is not the same thing as shooting one's self into a slump through poor shot selection.)

The Tar Heels also had a couple of prolonged droughts against Wisconsin: a six-minute spell in between the eight and two minute mark of the first half, and then a six and a half minute stretch in the first part of the second half in which Carolina tallied just two points.

After some early success springing Zeller and Henson free for layups via a vertical high-low entry pass was closed off, Carolina did not really solve Wisconsin's tenacious defense until Harrison Barnes put on that superman cape and found the right spots to attack the Badgers. Barnes hit three jumpers in a five minute stretch, and the team as a whole drained eight consecutive free throws as Carolina turned a five-point deficit into a relatively commanding eight-point lead, at just the right time.

Comparing the Kentucky and Wisconsin games is like comparing apples and oranges, but this much is clear: prolonged offensive droughts, whatever the cause, are a recurring problem for this team and a potential threat down the line. To be fair, this group of players has shown (this season and last) that it can make thirty, twenty, or even fewer minutes of sheer brilliance outweigh less-than-brilliant stretches and win games. But against the truly great teams, that may not be good enough.

That leads us to our second key concept: fine margins. As Roy Williams noted after the game, had any number of plays gone differently over the course of the 40 minutes, including Strickland and Henson's missed dunks, the outcomes could have been different. Against the better teams, you just can't leave points on the table.

How to avoid prolonged droughts and keep from wasting points in the future? Here's a simple four-point plan: Take good shots, handle the ball with care, hit free throws, and finish everything inside. Carolina usually (not always) does a reasonable or better job in the first two departments, but have clear room for substantial improvement in the latter categories.

As the Tar Heels move into a stretch of games in which they will be highly favored and enjoy quite a lot of home cooking, it's crucial that the contests be seen not just as opportunities to rack up impressive stats and send fans home with biscuits. This team needs to use these games to build good habits that can carry over down the line against elite competition. That means in particular the habit of not wasting points from the line, on makeable close range shots, or in advantageous fast-break situations, even when the team is already up ten or twenty.

It's almost impossible to make a national title run without surviving at least one tight game that could go either way but for the outcome of a couple of plays. Kentucky provided a glimpse of the kind of game Carolina might get in a Final Four, and Wisconsin was a model example of the tough, slow-paced team that can be a nightmare to deal with in a Sweet Sixteen or regional final.

If Carolina improves at the same rate as those other teams between now and March, we might project the Heels will have about a 50-50 chance of advancing in a rematch against those teams, depending on how the ball bounces on a given night. That is by no means a terrible situation to be in, but this team should be aiming for something a bit better. Concentration, finishing everything, and learning not to leave points on the table are the habits Carolina will need to strengthen to improve those odds come March.

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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