UNC-Illinois: The Good & Bad

So the North Carolina Tar Heels are mortal after all, as Tuesday's 92-65 loss at Illinois clearly illustrated. However, there were some positives to go with the many negatives in UNC's first loss of the season.

Here is a look at the good and the bad of UNC's first loss in six games:


Sean May – May was excellent offensively, scoring 21 points, using his soft touch around the basket. He was UNC's go-to guy in the second half when the Heels closed the margin to six with less than 10 minutes left. His court vision (3 assists) was also impressive. However, May pulled down only five rebounds.

Jawad Williams – Williams was one of the few Heels that played his game on Tuesday. Perhaps a bit far from the basket too often, Williams still tallied 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds.

Matt Doherty – Doherty handled this loss well. He didn't explode every time something went wrong. Instead, he was encouraging much of the time, and called for plays that should normally work. At times he chose to just let them play, to learn. He also left the starters in for the last minute, which was smart. If these kids are going to quickly learn what it's truly like playing for Carolina, they needed to experience that last minute and when the opposition's fans storm the court.

The experience – Not only do these young players need to know what it's like to be a Tar Heel in comeback victories, like against Rutgers, but also in defeat. Illinois has a solid hoops tradition, plays in the Big Ten, and has won its share of conference titles. Yet its fans stormed the floor after beating a non-conference foe that was 8-20 last season. Why? Because they beat Carolina. Part of the learning experience for a freshman at UNC is to fully understand what it means to play for the storied program, and also to opponents with an chance of beating the Tar Heels.

It was also a good experience in that there is plenty to learn, and breaking down the game film should be quite a lesson for the players. Yet, to play as poorly as they did, the Heels were down just six points with less than 10 minutes left.

This was also good for the fans who too quickly anointed this team to a level they simply aren't at. The Tar Heels are a quality team, but UNC fans better plan on a few more similar beatings, as well as wins by wide margins against quality opponents. Such is what happens to talented young teams.

Early start – Doherty was asked if the travel had taken its toll on the young team and his response was to note how Carolina started the game. He was right. The Heels opened up a quick 11-3 over the first 3:04 prompting Illini coach Bill Self to call a timeout. That was their most impressive stretch of the night, but it showed they were mentally ready to play.


Interior defense – The smallish Tar Heels had no answers for Illinois' hi-low game. Five Illini players had at least three assists, with senior forward Brian Cook collecting five. Cook, Nick Smith, Roger Powell, and the other big guys worked the hi-low game to near perfection. Nine of Illinois' last 17 made field goals were dunks or layups, and two were very short jumpers inside the paint.

Perimeter defense – The other six of Illinois' final 17 made field goals were 3-pointers. UNC became so focused - and confused - by the inside game they too often left the perimeter open. Sean Harrington made 6- of 8 3s, of which few were contested. Illinois was 12-20 from 3-point range, including a blistering 6-9 in the second half.

Ballhandling – It has been written in this space the last few weeks that UNC has ballhandling questions. Other than Raymond Felton (despite Tuesday night) and Melvin Scott, the Heels are suspect with the dribble. Jackie Manuel often dribbles into trouble after more than a few bounces. Rashad McCants handles the ball too far in front and isn't a whiz despite flashes and his ability to get by defenders. He is also a so-so passer, but will quickly improve in that area as well. Williams shouldn't be counted on to dribble often although he is a capable passer. UNC had 19 turnovers (the Illini had 12 steals) and only 12 assists on Tuesday.

Raymond Felton – Felton had eight turnovers and only three assists. He struggled seeing his mates against Illinois' extended, trapping defense, and often dribbled into messes. UNC's lack of movement without the ball were partly the cause of Felton's troubles. But overall, this was his worst performance, yet he'll learn from the experience and be much better soon.

Rashad McCants – McCants has such a quick first step he can usually get by on-ball defenders. However, his ballhandling isn't quite to the point where if defended well he will still get by, as was mostly the case on Tuesday. He only created a few shots and finished with just 13 points. A positive, however, is that he didn't force anything, only attempting nine field goals. In time his ballhandling will improve and he will be downright scary on offense.

Shot selection – The Heels somehow managed to cut the margin to 58-52 with less than 10 minutes remaining, but then showed their youth. With opportunities to cut the deficit to fewer than six points they took poor shots, often too quickly in a possession. May had just scored six consecutive points for the Heels leading to the six-point margin, but managed only a pair of free throws and a late layup over the final 9:50. In fact, UNC had a woeful three field goals the rest of the way. May didn't get enough touches and there were too many rushed shots. The misses allowed Illinois to get out in the open court, in which they had considerable success.

Rebounding – The Tar Heels were outrebounded 37-32; a number that would have been worse had the Illini not shot 51.5 percent from the field. UNC allowed 15 offensive rebounds, yet the Illini only missed 33 shots, meaning the ref-hot Illini grabbed nearly half of their misses. The Heels must learn to box out better and more consistently. The intensity is usually there, but with limited size, applying some more basic fundamentals could make a major difference.

Bench/minutes – Other than Scott, who played 26 minutes mainly because Manuel was ill, the bench totaled 19 minutes between four players. UNC will need for its bench to gain more of Doherty's trust if Carolina is to win games when the starters aren't playing at a high level. He must know he can rely on them to do more than run pre-determined plays and play decent defense.


Carolina returns home to take on Kentucky at 2 p.m. The game between college basketball's winningest programs will be televised by ESPN.

Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.

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