Caught Off Guard

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There was plenty of reason for concern surrounding North Carolina's backcourt entering the 2009-10 season, but most observers assumed that the guard positions would eventually return to Tar Heel levels, like well water that is constantly replenishing. But that hasn't been the case.

Roy Williams has had plenty of opportunities to play the "I told you so" game throughout his career. First it was that he couldn't win the big one. Then it morphed into he couldn't win a national championship with his own players. The list goes on and on, but in almost all of the situations, the opportunity was available for the Hall of Fame coach to point out that he and his players had surpassed the expectations laid before them.

But on Tuesday afternoon, Williams took a different approach. Instead of condemning reporters for being too critical of his program, the seventh-year UNC head coach asked his own questions pertaining to the media blowing off his October prognostications about potential struggles in the backcourt.

"What did we say in the preseason?" Williams asked. "If you weren't here, I'll tell you – we said we were concerned about our inexperienced play on the perimeter. Would anybody in this room say that I was wrong to think about that? I said I was concerned about our ability to shoot the ball from the 3-point line consistently. Does anybody here now disagree with that?"

Nobody disagreed.

The prevailing thought last summer was that sophomore Larry Drew would develop into a solid point guard for North Carolina and that true freshman Dexter Strickland would eventually take over the two-guard spot to allow fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard to move back to his comfortable role as UNC's wing forward.

There were early reasons for optimism. Drew outdueled Michigan State's Kalin Lucas with an 18-point, six-assist performance in the Tar Heels' 89-82 victory over the Spartans in ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and Strickland announced his arrival with a 12-point showing in the loss to Texas on Dec. 19. Even Ginyard had displayed his long-lost offensive skills through the first seven games, averaging 11.4 points on 55.4 percent shooting.

But that optimism was based on mere glimpses that have seemingly evaporated during ACC play.

Strickland is averaging 6.9 points per game in conference, but has nearly as many turnovers (14) as assists (15) and has struggled to absorb the playbook. Injuries sidelined Ginyard in December and the Tar Heel elder's scoring has dropped to 5.0 points per contest on 27.1 percent shooting.

Drew has performed better than his two backcourt teammates, increasing his scoring average to 9.4 points in league play with nearly a 2:1 assist-turnover ratio and a 42.3 3-point shooting percentage to boot, but the California sophomore has endured as much criticism this season as anybody in this program.

"Nobody's going to say he's been fantastic, and Larry's not either," Williams said. "But I still really believe Larry can really be a good college player. At times, I'm really pleased with what he's doing. His consistency has been something that's been difficult for us to handle, and when I say us, I mean him more than anybody."

Despite Drew's solid statistics, some Tar Heel fans have already penciled in current high school senior Kendall Marshall as North Carolina's starting point guard next season. There's no doubt that Drew had a tough act to follow – roadrunners Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson directed UNC to national titles in 2005 and 2009, respectively, and Bobby Frasor thrived in his one season in between those two point guards thanks to a fellow by the name of Hansbrough working in the post.

"I can put his numbers up on the board and they're not that far away from some other pretty good players in their first year as a starter," Williams said. "… It's tough for Larry. It really is, because there's so much focus on him because this is the guy that took Ty Lawson's place, but he doesn't have Wayne Ellington or Tyler Hansbrough to throw the ball to right now, either."

Drew told reporters on Tuesday that his road to consistency involved an aggressive mindset based in confidence, saying that he needed to "look to attack, whether that means shooting the ball more or making better decisions when I'm in the paint – just going out and playing my game."

Ginyard's troubles are easier to explain. Injuries have plagued the Alexandria, Va. native's career in Chapel Hill, forcing him to take a medical red-shirt last season while his classmates delivered the program's fifth NCAA national championship. After starting 14 games at the two-guard position as a freshman in '05-'06, Ginyard slid over to the 3-spot when Ellington arrived on campus the following season.

For fans and media members to expect a long-time utility man on the wing to make a smooth and successful transition as a primary scoring option at guard was simply asking too much.

To be fair, the backcourt was supposed to be able to rely on its frontcourt counterparts to carry the offensive load for the bulk of the season. More troubling is the fact that the potential for strong defensive play at the guard spots has yet to materialize into production.

Ten different ACC guards have scored 19 points or more against North Carolina this season, with eight of those players surpassing their scoring averages by six points or more. Those latter statistics don't include Virginia Tech's Malcolm Delaney and Dorenzo Hudson combining for 78 points in their two contests against the Tar Heels.

And things could get even worse on Wednesday night when Duke comes to town. Jon Scheyer enters the rivalry showdown averaging 18.2 points per game in league play, and Nolan Smith is right behind him with a 17.9 average.

Williams pointed to Maryland seniors Greivis Vasquez (26 points) and Eric Hayes (16 points) as prime examples of how strong guard play can notch more marks in the win column.

"Experienced guards are the easiest way to success, especially if they're talented experienced guards," Williams said. "You can go look at '05 and '09. We had two juniors and two juniors."

This time next season, Drew, Strickland and reserve Leslie McDonald will be a year older and Marshall and fellow freshman Reggie Bullock will provide solid options for North Carolina in the backcourt.

But for now, the Tar Heels must find a way to instill confidence and increase production at the guard positions if postseason aspirations are alive and well in the UNC locker room.

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