Thad: Giving Pause

Headed into Tallahassee on Saturday, this young North Carolina team was just one loss from being written off as irrelevant, and for some, unwatchable.

But the Tar Heels scoffed off the challenge of playing on the road on a quick turnaround after Thursday's dispiriting home loss to Miami, notching its second genuine quality win of the season over Florida State. That victory is of inestimable value to the confidence and psyche of this team—and shows that Carolina might yet be a force to be reckoned with by year's end.

The dictionary does not have enough adjectives to describe how bad Carolina has been at its worst moments this year. Carolina played dismally for about 30 minutes against Butler, 25 minutes against Indiana, 20 minutes against Texas, 15 minutes against Virginia, and then the final eight minutes against Miami. That is progress of a sort, but it's not good enough.

On Saturday, Carolina was good enough, against a Seminole team that itself played hard and shot the ball well. Carolina's struggles in losses this year has led to a lot of unsolicited advice for the coaching staff from fans and the media. But two of the principal pieces of advice were never likely to be followed.

First, Roy Williams was and is not likely to seriously deviate from the up-tempo philosophy he is comfortable with, or to move to a much more structured offensive set with many more designed plays. Tweaks, yes quite possibly, but a fundamental rethink in the middle of the season? Very unlikely.

Second, Williams also was and is not likely to back off his designation of Marcus Paige as the starting point guard. At times earlier this season, the case for letting Paige come off the bench and having Dexter Strickland start alongside P.J. Hairston or Leslie McDonald in the backcourt seemed strong. Strickland would provide a more physical defensive presence at the point position while handling the ball steadily, Hairston or McDonald would provide shooting at the shooting guard slot, and pressure would be taken off Paige.

Increasingly, though, what Williams has seen all along in Paige is evident in game performances: a high level of intelligence, and an ability to evolve into a point guard with strong court vision, decision-making skills, and leadership ability, as well as periodic scoring punch. He also showed great hustle and savvy with his crucial steal in the final minute Saturday. Paige clearly has a long way to go, but his performance in the past two games in particular has provided a glimpse of his upside.

The stronger case for change is at the shooting guard, where Hairston has been far more productive than Strickland in ACC play. Hairston's potential as an explosive player has been evident since he arrived in Chapel Hill, but his confidence and productivity fell off the cliff as a freshman following an injury. On Saturday, at least, he was back on track to where many thought he might be at this point in his career.

So should he become the starter? On the one hand, Williams might reflect that whereas Strickland has struggled the past three games, he was terrific against UNLV, that Hairston seems to be comfortable coming off the bench, and that the FSU explosion was just one game.

On the other hand, moving the Greensboro sophomore into the starting lineup on the backs of that impressive effort might boost Hairston's confidence and send the entire team a message about the correspondence between performance and playing time.

Whether that happens or not, Saturday's performance from another sophomore, Jackson Simmons, surely has earned him a regular spot in the rotation. Simmons did not play against UNLV or Virginia, but after a promising cameo against Miami he put in a virtually perfect performance in 15 minutes against FSU, tallying eight points, four rebounds, and the go-ahead basket.

If we put aside rankings and expectations and look at what different players can actually do, it makes a lot of sense that Simmons has a continued role. He is a more substantial physical presence and a more solid rebounder than Brice Johnson; and unlike Desmond Hubert or Joel James, he can hit the open mid-range shot, a shot that will often be available for Carolina's big guys.

At times Carolina will go small, but in general it's not reasonable to ask James Michael McAdoo to carry the inside load alone. Further, the Norfolk sophomore simply is not polished enough offensively to be consistently productive as the sole frontcourt presence. He needs another big body alongside him to keep defenses honest, make the simple pass or screen, and contribute some strong boxouts. Some of the time, Simmons can be that guy.

The other reserve who is steadily playing his way into a bigger role is J.P. Tokoto. Be it a simple play or a spectacular dunk, Tokoto is consistently making things happen in his minutes with relatively few mistakes. Against Florida State, it was two assists, a steal, and an offensive rebound in eight minutes. Against Miami it was four points, four steals, three rebounds and an assist in 12 minutes. In neither game did Tokoto commit a turnover.

Productivity like that needs to be rewarded, and in this case, it probably will be in the form of a consistent 10-15 minutes a game of playing time—if not, in time, quite a bit more.

Roy Williams has freely admitted over the first half of the season that he's searching for the right combinations and is willing to try whatever works. The interesting—and at times frustrating—aspect of a season like this is that for the team to be successful, multiple players are going to need to do things they have never done before at the collegiate level, and you can't tell in advance who is going start doing them first (or if they will get done at all).

Carolina has a lot of good players, and while some have shown flashes of potential greatness none are there yet. Whether these good players will add up to a good team by ACC standards still remains to be seen, but the Tallahassee performance should give pause to those on the verge of writing this year off.

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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