The question is no longer if North Carolina can repeat as national champions. That would seem to be an extreme long shot.
Instead, the question is now if the Tar Heels will even qualify for the NCAA Tournament after losing for the fourth time in their last five games Thursday night when they dropped a 74-70 decision at Virginia Tech. North Carolina is now 13-9 overall and 2-5 in the ACC, where it is in 10th place and just a half-game out of last place ahead of Miami (Fla.) and North Carolina State.
All the losing has left Roy Williams wondering if he has lost his coaching touch and if his players have become uninterested in what is rapidly becoming a lost season.
“I’ve told them that I have never had to coach concentration and effort as much as I feel like I'm trying to coach that now,” Williams said. “They should be able to supply that. In saying, ‘they' should be able to supply that, I've got to figure out a way to help them get that done. Evidently, I haven't done a very good job of it.”
North Carolina has always been known for pushing the ball up the court and playing at a rapid pace under Williams. The Tar Heels are 11th in the nation with an adjusted tempo of 74.0 percent but is 61st with 109.4 adjusted offensive efficiency rating. They had the nation’s most efficient offense last season.
A telling sign that North Carolina’s offense is not functioning properly is that it has scored just 14 fast-break points in its four conference home games.
“We’ve had situations where we’re 3-on-2, 3-on-1 and we don’t score a basket and it’s frustrating,” Williams said. “It’s a strange thing because we’ve always scored so frequently in a full-court game that we constantly had to work on our half-court offense because it was unusual for us to play a half-court game. We’re not getting any easy baskets this year.”
North Carolina has a young team with only one returning starter. At times, Williams is putting five freshmen on the floor at once.
The Tar Heels are not getting much production from anyone as just two players are scoring in double figures. Senior forward Deon Thompson is averaging 14.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 0.9 assists and 26.1 minutes a game while sophomore Ed Davis has a 14.0/9.7/0.9/27.7 line.
Davis is the only Tar Heel playing at an elite level as he ranks among the national leaders with a 59.1 effective field goal percentage (89th), a 62.2 true shooting percentage (82st), a 24.1 defensive rebounding percentage (45th), an 8.8 block percentage (48th) and a 66.7 free throw rate (71st). Despite North Carolina’s offensive struggles, sophomore point guard Larry Drew II’s 37.0 assist rate ranks 12th.
Williams has given his team frequent pep talks this season but they don’t seem to be working. In fact, Williams makes it quite clear he is growing weary of coddling his players.
“You have to be concerned about their psyche, but also, I get tired of worrying about somebody’s psyche,” Williams said. “Play the dadgum game. That’s what it boils down to. They understand I’m tired of the part.”
Despite his frustration, Williams isn’t ready to abandon hope that this season can still be salvaged.
“I had some calls on the radio show the other night wanting to know if I would think about putting some guys on the bench and starting some freshmen and playing for next year,” Williams said. “I can't give up on these guys. I've got to enjoy what we're doing and try to do the best we can with this bunch.”
Buckeyes Threatening to Top Big Ten
Despite its 67-49 loss at Wisconsin on Tuesday, Michigan State is still 9-1 in the Big Ten and holds a two-game lead over four teams tied for second place--Illinois, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin. Ohio State, though, is starting to look like a team that can emerge from the pack and overtake the Spartans as the Buckeyes have won six of their last seven games to improve to 17-6.
Ohio State last won the conference title in 2006-07 when Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook were the stars. Redshirt junior forward David Lighty is the only current scholarship players on the Buckeyes’ roster who played on that title team.
While this season’s version isn’t as talented as the ’06-07 team that had the three first-round picks in the NBA Draft, coach Thad Matta believes it stacks up well with the 2005-06 team that also finished atop the Big Ten standings.
“I think this team is probably more efficient than that team was offensively,” Matta said. “The actions we’re running now, we didn’t run with that team. There’s a little bit of a difference there.”
The Buckeyes are sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency this season with a 117.5 mark. Junior guard Jon Diebler’s 127.4 offensive rating is 23rd in the country while he also ranks 13th in true shooting percentage (66.5) and 23rd in effective field goal percentage (62.6) while posting a 12.9/2.9/1.7/35.8 line.
Meanwhile, junior forward Evan Turner is reemerging as a national player of the year candidate despite missing six early-season games with a broken bone in his lower back as he is averaging 18.9/9.5/5.7/33.3. He is sixth in the nation in percentage of possessions (33.4), seventh in assist rate (38.2) and 33rd in defensive rebounding percentage (24.9). Sophomore forward William Buford has a 14.2/5.0/3.3/32.0 line.
Coaches Favor Tournament Expansion
The talk continues unabated that the NCAA Tournament field may be expanded from 65 teams to 96 as soon as next season. While purists think the NCAA would be watering down the event by adding 31 more teams, coaches love the idea. After all, getting bids to the NCAAs helps them keep their jobs.
Count Florida coach Billy Donovan among those coaches who want expansion. Of course, the Gators have had to settle for the NIT the past two seasons after winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.
“I think it’s always a good thing to have more opportunities for more people,” Donovan said. “I felt bad for our kids the last couple of years. You’re right there a game or two away from maybe being in and then they don’t get a chance to go. I always think that it’s better to include more. That’s just been me. How all that works and how much longer would the tournament be and how many weeks they’ve got to add, I don’t know all that. But I think every college coach would be the same way.”
No Stopping Xavier in A-10
This was supposed to be the season the Atlantic 10 caught up to Xavier after the Musketeers won the last three regular-season conference titles. Coach Sean Miller left for Arizona after last season and three starters were gone from a team that went to the Sweet 16 before losing to Pittsburgh.
However, Xavier is again on top of a very competitive Atlantic 10 field. The Musketeers are 16-6, 8-1 in the conference, where they hold a half-game lead on Charlotte and Temple and a one-game lead on Rhode Island and Richmond.
One of the biggest reasons Xavier has been able to stay on top has been the play of sophomore guard Jordan Crawford, a transfer from Indiana. After gaining national notoriety last summer for dunking over LeBron James at the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar’s camp at Akron, Ohio, Crawford is averaging 19.5/4.8/2.7/31.4. He is 10th in the nation in percentage of shots (34.4) and 64th in percentage of possessions (29.6).
“I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Jordan yet,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “He tries to make every play. When he lets the game come to him, he can be a dominant player. Once he allows that to happen more frequently then he’s going to be really special.”
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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