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November 1, 2008
At the College Basketball Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the coverage staff for their opinion about a topic in the sport.
This week's question: What is the Achilles' heel of national-title favorite North Carolina?
It's no secret that the Tar Heels aren't among the nation's elite teams on defense. In fact, they were awful last season, surrendering 72.5 points per game to rank No. 255 nationally. More specifically, they have major problems defending guards. There's plenty of proof from last season. Ohio State's Jamar Butler and Jon Diebler combined for 36 against the Heels; they combined to average 22 for the season. UNC Asheville guards K.J. Garland and Bryan Smithson torched them for 41 points; they averaged 30. Boston College's Tyrese Rice dropped 46 on UNC. Clemson's guards gave the Heels fits in three narrow losses, two of which went to overtime. Duke sixth man Jon Scheyer averaged 15.5 points in two games against the Heels and 11.4 against everybody else. Blue Devils guard Greg Paulus averaged 16.5 points against the Heels and 11 against everybody else. There's no question North Carolina is an excellent offensive team. But like so many teams that like to score, they don't particularly like to defend. If they can't play at least passable defense, particularly against perimeter players, they won't be cutting down the nets in April. Not to mention what happens if they can't get healthy. Right now Tyler Hansbrough is out indefinitely with a shin injury, and Marcus Ginyard - one of UNC's best defenders - is out with a stress fracture in his left foot.
It's hard to find a weakness when you return the type of firepower the Tar Heels feature. But I guess I can nitpick a little. First let's start with the offense. While they were the best offensive scoring team in the country (actually second-best, with all due respect to VMI), most of that comes from transition and fast breaks. Believe it or not, their half-court offense against top-level competition can be inconsistent (I told you I was nitpicking). They don't have people who can consistently create their own offense. Tyler Hansbrough, although an absolute stud when healthy, struggled at times against top-level competition when he had to play with his back to the basket. Good news for the Heels is that there aren't many teams in America who can match up physically with them, so I have a feeling they'll be a lock to win the ACC and get to the Final Four. A lot of people have talked about their defense. That is a concern, but it revolves around their ability to control penetration. This is critical because they do not defend the rim well. As a team, they averaged only 4.5 blocks per game. Contrast that with Memphis (6.1 bpg) and Kansas (6.0 bpg). Also remember that those teams guarded the basketball much better than Carolina did, so that is a concern for coach Roy Williams. Having said that, there's a lot of talent returning to Chapel Hill.
I think there a few potential Achilles' heels. One is expectations. Find someone who doesn't think UNC is going to win it all. Can the Heels handle the pressure of being expected to win ? and to have failed if they don't bring home the trophy? Second is their lackadaisical attitude toward defense. Coach Roy Williams likes his teams to play at a fast pace, and offense seemingly is a much bigger priority than defense. Will the Heels be able to get key stops at key points in close games in March? Finally, there's Williams himself. For all the talent he has coached, he has one national title, and his teams don't always play to their potential in March. Play word association with a basketball fan, and throw out the name "Roy Williams." I'd bet one of the first answers is "cries a lot in March." He cries for a reason: His teams often have fallen short.
A lot of people are going to point to the lack of good outside shooters, and that's a valid point. If Wayne Ellington suffers an injury or hits a severe cold streak in the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels aren't going to win it all. But defense is the bigger issue. The Tar Heels play an aggressive man-to-man and do a good job generating turnovers. But they also give up too many open looks and easy baskets. Opponents shot 42.6 percent from the field last season. That ranked 117th in the nation. With virtually the same team as last season ? all five starters return ? I don't see that changing much. In fact, they could actually be worse if guard Marcus Ginyard's foot injury lingers. Ginyard, their best defensive player, is expected to return sometime in December. The Tar Heels can outscore anyone. There's no arguing that. But they can't consistently get stops, which is what makes them vulnerable. Like anyone else, they will eventually hit a cold spell. That's what ended their last two seasons short of the national title ? first losing a double-digit lead to Georgetown in the Elite Eight and then falling into a 28-point deficit to Kansas in the national semifinals that they couldn't overcome. This team may be doomed to the same fate.