CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – On the first day of February, North Carolina entered the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville with a chance to take a three-game lead in the ACC standings. Less than three weeks later, the Tar Heels find themselves in a sudden battle for ACC Tournament positioning.
The top four seeds in the ACC Tournament earn a double-bye in the five-day event held in Washington, D.C. on March 8-12. For the first three months of the season, it seemed to be a safe assumption UNC would not tip off at the Verizon Center until quarterfinal round action began on Thursday, March 10. That’s not longer the case.
The Tar Heels have lost three of their last five games, including Wednesday’s 74-73 loss to No. 20 Duke. The road will remain challenging as UNC plays three ranked opponents over its final five games, in addition to a road trip to rival N.C. State and a Senior Night tilt with Syracuse, which has won eight of its last 10 games.
It’s not as though UNC was playing its best ball coming out of January. After a 27-point win against an overmatched Boston College team on Jan. 30, Williams foreshadowed his team’s losing trend in February.
“If we play the way we played the last four games, it will be very, very, very difficult to win any of those games,” he said. “So we’ve got to play better.”
Complicating the “playing better” process is the fact that UNC’s issues are not singular in nature. There are three glaring ailments that have prompted the Tar Heels’ recent tumble, although it’s worth noting there are other minor corrections that likely need to occur for UNC to make a deep run in March.
Issue No. 1: Guard Play
In 2009-10, UNC played in its lone NIT of the Roy Williams era. It was also the only season during the previous 12 years in which both starting guards shot 41 percent or worse from the floor. Marcus Ginyard shot 40.6 percent, narrowly edging Larry Drew’s 40.2 percent mark in that 20-17 campaign.
Through 26 games this season, Joel Berry is shooting 40.9 percent and Marcus Paige is right behind him at 40.8 percent. In ACC play, Berry is shooting 39.1 percent to Paige’s 37.7 percent. During UNC’s last five games, Berry is shooting 29.8 percent to Paige’s 39.2 percent.
The duo combined for a 4-of-24 shooting display (1-of-9 from 3) in the loss to Duke on Wednesday, including misfires on their final 10 field goal attempts over the last 10:32. Making matters worse is that Berry and Paige paired their 1-of-16 shooting in the second half with just one assist, highlighting UNC's inability to move the ball effectively to get quality looks. Berry has managed 11 assists against seven turnovers in the Tar Heels' five losses this season.
All three of UNC’s Final Four teams during the Williams included scoring-efficient backcourts. Raymond Felton’s 45.5 field goal percentage during the 2005 national title season is the lowest mark of UNC’s guards that made it to the final weekend of play. And while the 2011-12 team’s season came to an end in the Elite Eight due to Kendall Marshall’s broken wrist, both Marshall and Reggie Bullock were connecting at a 45.9 percent clip or better.
Paige’s shooting struggles have prompted discussion regarding his move to the off guard spot and if Berry’s insertion at point guard has disrupted the senior guard’s rhythm and ability to create his own shots. It’s a conversation worth having, to be sure. One detail that must be included, however, is that Paige is a career 41.0 percent shooter (542-of-1323) who is more efficient from 3-point range than from inside the arc.
Issue No. 2: Kennedy Meeks
A hot topic of conversation emerging from the loss to Duke was UNC’s inability to get the ball inside to Brice Johnson, who scored 27 points in the opening 27:05 of play and yet attempted one shot over the final 12:36 minutes. It was an inexplicable footnote to the Tar Heels’ fourth-straight loss to their rivals in Durham, although the absence of Meeks from the discussion possibly says more about his diminishing role.
Meeks missed seven games to recover from a bruised knee in late December-early January, although his game has yet to respond. The junior center averaged 12.3 points and 7.4 rebounds in 24.4 minutes per game prior to being sidelined with the injury. He’s averaging 8.5 points and 5.1 rebounds in 19.6 minutes per game since his return.
He was a nonfactor in UNC’s loss at Louisville on Feb. 1 and he was benched from the starting lineup for the Boston College game due a poor defensive outing in the loss at Notre Dame. Johnson and Justin Jackson were also benched in Chestnut Hill, although they appear to have responded better to the coaching decision than their junior teammate.
Meeks was effective in the opening minutes against Duke before being pulled on two separate occasions for taking outside shots instead of forcing the ball inside. He finished with six points and eight rebounds.
His career-high 25 points and 11 rebounds against Temple in the season opener seems like a lot longer than three months ago.
Issue No. 3: Defense
On Tuesday, some 32 hours before Mike Krzyzewski employed a NBA-style iso offensive concept that helped his Duke team score on seven of its final 10 possessions to upset UNC, Roy Williams harped on the lack of defensive progression his team had made over the course of the season.
“I really thought that we would be much better defensively than we are right now,” Williams said. “… It’s a veteran team, but I keep thinking that we’re going to get it a little bit better.”
UNC’s defensive statistics are not poor, by any measure. The Tar Heels rank fourth in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (41.5), albeit 12th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (36.8), and rank 35th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (95.6), according to kenpom.com.
For a program intent on Final Four appearances, however, those stats are currently lagging the great teams of the Williams era. The ’05, ’08 and ’12 teams all ranked in the top-20 in adjusted defensive efficiency, while the ’09 team, which had the most explosive offense of the group, ranked 21st with a 92.9 mark.
Williams criticized his team’s help defense following Wednesday’s loss, 12 days after allowing 23 second-chance points on 20 offensive rebounds in the loss at Notre Dame and 17 days after allowing Louisville to shoot 53.1 percent after halftime.
With an offense leaking efficiency over the last month, UNC has yet to prove it can win consistently with its current defensive effort. Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh was a good start. Stringing a series of those performances together will be required once the madness of March arrives.