North Carolina’s loss highlights a serious flaw in its game

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source: AP

North Carolina’s flaws were exposed in a surprising 90-80 loss to UNLV Saturday night. But I didn’t expect the frontcourt to be one of those problems.

Neither did coach Roy Williams.

“We could never get our focus offensively the entire game,” Williams said. “What killed us, they got 20 points on offensive rebounds to our six.”

That was a start. The Tar Heels’ NBA-ready frontcourt of Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson combined to shoot 11-34 and committed five turnovers. Zeller played just 24 minutes because of foul trouble and Barnes was nursing an ankle injury throughout the second half, but Mike Moser, Bryce Massamba and Chace Stanback outplayed them in nearly every facet, mostly because the Heels seemed so passive.

The other major issue? Point guard Kendall Marshall’s inability to defend quicker guards – Oscar Bellfield torched him for 16 points and nine assists – which will certainly surface again this week when he faces Kentucky’s Marquis Teague. (Though Dexter Strickland may be tasked with that.)

Also perplexing? The Heels’ poor shooting inside the arc. Their 3-point shooting will be hot and cold all season, but the 2-point buckets should come a little easier. Yet Tar Heel Fan notes that UNC made just 32.2 percent of their 2s in the second half. That’s unacceptable for a team this talented.

Scarier for UNC should be their trends on the offensive glass. Again, from Tar Heel Fan:

In each of Roy’s first 7 seasons with Carolina, his teams all had an OR% over 39.1, which is elite.  Last season, this fell to 37.1, still decent, but no longer an area of absolute advantage.  This season, while only 6 games old, the Heels are collecting their own misses at a rate of just over 35%, which is average to slightly above average, and more concerning, yesterday was the 3rd time that they were under 30%.  There are really two reasons for this drop.  First, while Zeller, Henson and Barnes all did a decent job on the offensive glass last season, none of those players attack the offensive glass like Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough did, and while it would be easy to say that the current Heels should do that, don’t lose sight of the fact that there is a reason why May and Hansbrough are, well, May and Hansbrough.  The second difference between this group, and Roy’s previous teams is that the wings are not as effective on the offensive glass.  Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, and Jackie Manuel all averaged over 1.5 ORPG during their championship seasons (as did Marcus Ginyard in 2008), while none of Carolina’s current guards have shown an ability to do so.  Now, last year’s team was better defensively than either the 2008 or 2009 teams were, so it is possible that their staying back does prevent a percentage of opponent fast breaks.  However, given the importance of offensive efficiency in determining the both the success of Roy’s teams, and the likelihood of team becoming a champion (average Champion’s OE rank: 4.3; average Champion’s DE rank: 8.8), perhaps this is a trade-off that should be revisited.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“I was surprised that we didn’t rebound the basketball better,” Williams said. “I was surprised about a lot of things we didn’t do. We have to be stronger with the basketball. We have to guard the basketball better. We never did get the flow going. We have to be whole lot more patient.”

UNC’s timing couldn’t be worse, either. Next up are Wisconsin (Wednesday) and Kentucky (Saturday), the two top teams in kenpom.com’s ratings. The Heels are certainly capable of winning both, but they’ll have to be more precise against the Badgers and more aggressive against Kentucky.

Nothing like some March-esque games in early December.

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