Heels Playing Mind Games

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – As conference play begins, most basketball programs have provided pivotal insight into their ability and potential by way of box scores and stat lines. But that old standard doesn't necessarily apply for this North Carolina squad.

Ken Pomeroy's basketball ratings provide a mind-numbing catalog of defensive and offensive efficiency statistics based on a Pythagorean equation, but the longstanding quandary for applied mathematics in the real world resides in the fact that emotion is the mother of all unknown quantities.

Sure, the Tar Heels boast a plus-8.8 rebounding margin and have outscored their opponents by 12.4 points per game, and yes, North Carolina needs to work on dribble-drive penetration and its ability to capitalize on a higher percentage of its close-range opportunities. But the questions that this program needs answered as the ACC slate arrives in Chapel Hill on Sunday relate more to topics such as confidence, leadership and coaching.

Head coach Roy Williams has alluded to the team's fragile confidence in recent weeks, and those concerns were obvious in UNC's locker room following the overtime loss to the College of Charleston on Monday. The players quickly vacated the solemn cubicle beneath the Carolina First Arena, leaving an emotional Larry Drew attempting to explain his team's fourth defeat of the season.

"I think our confidence is still high," senior forward Deon Thompson told reporters during Friday's press conference. "You win games, you lose games. So I don't think our confidence in our abilities as basketball players is down by any means. We still know that we have all of the pieces to be a great team and do a lot of good things when March and April come."

But Thompson admitted that Monday's loss likely carried over to Thursday's practice, resulting in a poor session that included running threats from the coaching staff. How high can a team's confidence really be if a nonconference upset loss is still taking its toll three days later?

"Their confidence level is not where we want it to be, but I don't think we're at a point where we have to worry, because they're all pretty cocky, too," Williams said. "Which is one of the problems, too – we may think we're better than we really are."

That's where leadership comes into play. North Carolina fans and plenty of impartial observers almost expected Williams to serve up a second helping of his magical '05-'06 run that relied on David Noel's senior leadership and a host of talented, yet inexperienced, underclassmen.

But fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard has been unable thus far to replicate Noel's heralded leadership role due in large part to a variety of injuries. Thompson has attempted to fill Ginyard's vocal void in his absence, but the Torrance, Calif. native told his teammates in a recent team meeting that he wanted to lead more with his actions.

"[Ginyard's] more of a vocal leader than I am, but that's something that I've been doing a lot of," Thompson said. "… That's something that I do need to do better – just not talk so much and just play and lead by my actions. When Marcus does come back, I think that's something that will be easier for me to do [and] just let him do all of the talking."

Thompson attempted to lead by his actions with a near-perfect defensive display in guarding the College of Charleston's Andrew Goudelock on the perimeter with only seconds to play in regulation. The problem is that the entire coaching staff was screaming and motioning for their senior forward to foul the Preseason SoCon Player of the Year as North Carolina had a foul to give.

Thompson didn't foul and Goudelock promptly drilled a dramatic game-tying 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds to play. Add in Dexter Strickland's drive to the basket with 16 seconds left to play in overtime when UNC needed a 3-pointer to even the score, and concerns about these players understanding what is asked of them becomes an obvious topic of conversation.

Williams shouldered the blame on Monday night, and then suggested on Friday that the problem was not in his ability to connect with his players, but rather in his knack for assumption.

"I can't assume that because Deon Thompson is a senior that he knows he should foul in that situation," Williams said. "I can't assume that Dexter Strickland knows that when we run a set play for a 3-point shot, guess what we want? A 3-point shot…

"I asked the kids, I said, ‘What should we do when the ball goes in with 2.1 seconds to play? Time out.' But we had five guys on the floor and not a single guy calling timeout. Kids make mistakes, but heck, I've got to do a better job with them. I don't mind saying that."

Three of North Carolina's losses occurred against teams currently ranked in the top-seven in both national polls, but yet USA Today's Jeff Sagarin rates UNC's schedule as the 159th toughest in the land. That translates into the Tar Heels having mostly played legitimate Final Four contenders or programs where a NCAA Tournament bid is a pipe dream.

In other words, we really have no clue how good or bad this North Carolina squad currently is. Monday's loss in Charleston could be a foreshadowing of tough times ahead or it could be a complete fluke. But this season will only get tougher if the Tar Heels are unable to get on the exact same page and fix some of these underlying issues.

Williams joked last week about his team needing to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" together. As usual, he may be closer to the truth than any of us ever expected.

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