Only two of Roy Williams’ 25 basketball teams failed to play in the NCAA Tournament.
His first Kansas club (1988-89) won 19 games but was on probation and ineligible, and his 2010 North Carolina team was ravaged by injuries and failed to make the cut. Ironically, both seasons followed national titles for the respective programs.
This season, however, UNC is neither on probation nor banged up, and it may not make the NCAA Tournament. At 16-7 overall (6-4 in the ACC), UNC appears on course for a lower seed to The Big Dance. But the schedule ahead has enough rough spots, and since Carolina’s resume is very un-Carolina-like, it could lead to some teeth-gnashing by Tar Heels fans come Selection Sunday.
This week, UNC has a road matchup at Duke (No. 1 in RPI) and home date with Virginia (No. 36 RPI), which the Heels lost to last month. But their only two nonconference wins over teams in the RPI top 100 are Long Beach State (No. 99) and UNLV (20th), which has struggled of late.
North Carolina’s best road win occurred against No. 65 Florida State, which was routed by 25 points at Wake Forest last weekend.
After next week, Carolina also gets No. 17 N.C. State, FSU and No. 1 Duke at home and travels to Maryland (73rd). Dangerous games at Georgia Tech and Clemson also loom.
The Tar Heels have enough talent to get through the slate and earn a decent seed in the NCAA tournament, but the likelihood of going far is remote. This is a difficult reality for a program that has reached the Elite 8 (or deeper) in its last five NCAA tourneys.
So, how did North Carolina get to this point?
The Tar Heels’ issues have been well documented: They have no post presence of any significance and haven’t received consistent ACC-caliber help at point guard.
Freshman point guard Marcus Paige is improving, but his deficiencies have stagnated the offense at times. On defense, he has also been overmatched.
If you aren’t effective in the post and have major point guard issues, you won’t win in college basketball. As a result, when stripping away the baby blue uniforms and lettering on their chests … based on its performances, especially on the road against quality opponents, UNC fails the eye test.
Carolina trailed Butler by as many as 29 points in Hawaii, lost at Indiana by 24 (trailed by 31), lost at 10-13 Texas by 18, trailed by 28 at N.C. State, and got drubbed at Miami by 26 points last weekend.
Williams has been able to mask some of the weaknesses enough to get by lesser foes, but UNC has been no match for the better clubs in the nation.
Is there a possible remedy?
Williams hates being asked about regrets, and loves to invoke comments about wanting to win more in his pinky than the entire fan base does. Williams is ultra-competitive, and would undoubtedly kick over every stone for the right lineup combinations.
The Hall of Fame coach is also supremely loyal to his players, especially older ones, and can be extremely stubborn, too. Often, loyalty and stubbornness go hand in hand.
In the grand scheme of things, there’s no player grouping or rotation that would have given UNC a chance to beat Miami, Indiana or Butler. And against N.C. State, the Tar Heels only sliced the deficit to five in the final minute. But, perhaps cutting the cord to what hasn’t been working can enhance Carolina’s chances of making the NCAAs and avoiding an embarrassing trip to the NIT.
Williams often notes that teams always look better when the ball goes through the basket. His point: A team can play well right up to getting good looks, but if the shot doesn’t fall many observers see it as a poor possession. On the flip side, a bad possession can be bailed out with excellent shooting.
In Carolina’s case, poor possessions are more common than necessary because the post isn’t usually respected by opponents and the point guards are not scoring threats. Defenses can sag and focus on forward James Michael McAdoo and extend a little tighter on wing Reggie Bullock, among the starters. Without diving into the entire season, the last few weeks tell an ugly tale for the Tar Heels: In their last five games, they have been outscored 48-17 up to the first official timeout.
Note that last-place teams Virginia Tech and Boston College opened up 12-0 and 8-2 leads on the Heels, respectively. Miami also had a 9-2 lead by the first official timeout (Saturday).
This is more than a coincidence, and it could lead to UNC’s undoing. As competitive as Williams is, why would he continue to put a lineup on the floor that essentially spots the opposition a six-point lead?
There may be no answers in the post, and since Desmond Hubert usually wins the opening tip and can defend some, Williams likely won’t go to freshman Brice Johnson, who is much more polished offensively, or sophomore Jackson Simmons, who makes his teammates better by simply being in the right place at the right time so often.
Williams, however, can and should make a switch at shooting guard. Senior Dexter Strickland is a terrific teammate, a decent distributor and was once a wonderful defensive player before blowing out his knee 13 months ago, forcing him to miss the remainder of last season.
But Strickland is a liability overall on offense. There can’t be many other shooting guards in college basketball posting similar numbers, which include him scoring just two points in each of the last two contests.
In 10 ACC games, Strickland is averaging 4.9 points per outing. He is 17-for-53 from the field, good for a paltry 32.1 percent, and is 0-for-2 on 3-point attempts. He is doing this averaging 26 minutes per contest.
In the same span, sophomore P.J. Hairston is averaging 13.7 points, is shooting 46.8 percent from the field and 46.1 percent (24-52) from 3-point range while playing just 16.6 minutes per game.
Among the reasons Williams has kept the talented 6-foot-5 wing from getting major minutes was inconsistency with his shot. That appears to be an old problem now. Hairston has scored 70 points in the last 77 minutes he’s been on the floor.
He isn’t a refined ballhandler and has mental lapses on defense, but North Carolina is more dangerous when he’s on the floor, and will get better faster with Hairston receiving more playing time. Plus, his presence can free up Bullock more and create a few more entry lanes to McAdoo in and near the paint.
There is a precedent for Williams making a difficult change in mid-season. He finally swapped Larry Drew with Kendall Marshall in early February in 2011 and the Tar Heels soared, winning 11 of their next 12 games and later reaching the Elite Eight. And following consecutive ACC losses dropped UNC to 10-4 in 2006, Williams replaced Marcus Ginyard with Wes Miller. Miller scored 18 points in his first start — a one-point win at Florida State — and Carolina closed the regular season winning nine of 11 games, including over Arizona and at top-ranked Duke.
Williams is a legend because he almost always makes the right decisions for his team, it stands to reason now is the time to make another gutsy call. Playing Hairston ahead of Strickland would increase UNC’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament and strengthen the program for next season.
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