by Adam Sobsey
DEAN E. SMITH CENTER/ CHAPEL HILL—The Tar Heels continued their topsy-turvitude last night, losing at home to unranked Texas, which won't be unranked anymore. The 10-1 Longhorns, kind of a discount Kentucky in many ways, just needed a win over a respected program to prove their worth. After the game, their head coach, Rick Barnes, whose infamy in Tar Heel lore has faded over time, pulled the old coaching trick of saying he pays no attention to the rankings but then recalling how he told one of his assistants that Texas was not only unranked; they probably didn't even have a single vote in the polls. (He was right; they didn't). That thing he supposedly wasn't paying attention to may in fact have been motivation for him, and perhaps transitively for his team.
Motivation. Drive. The knack and how to get it. Whatever you want to call it, it's a foundation of coaching young athletes. How do you get players to play hard, anyway? Texas is a very young team, as UNC-Chapel Hill is, even with senior Leslie McDonald reinstated last night. (McDonald immediately became Carolina's no. 2 three-point shooter this season by hitting four of them in 22 minutes. That's how anemic Carolina is as a three-point shooting team.) Still, the Longhorns took it right to Carolina early. They played harder, got nearly twice as many first-half rebounds, controlled loose balls and drove to the lane repeatedly, resulting in either easy baskets, fouls, or second-chance offensive rebounds. At halftime, they had scored a staggering 53 points, and led by 11.
Carolina tightened the rebounding margin, and the score, in the second half—somehow they had a chance to send the game into overtime on the final possession, despite their poor play—but their return to horrific free throw shooting doomed them. (Carolina couldn't overcome one of these failures against Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham; how could they have expected to overcome both?) At home against Belmont a month ago, they missed 26 of 48 free throws and lost by three points. At home against Texas last night, they missed 23 of 47 free throws and lost by three points again. Take away Marcus Paige, who is the only dependable player on the team in any facet of the game, and the Tar Heels shot a combined 37-82 (45 percent) from the free throw line in the two losses.
After the game, Roy Williams said: "You've got to be tough enough to step up and make the dadgum thing or go play soccer." No discussion of form, practice, hands, nothing like that. It's not about execution. Free-throw shooting is mental. You've got to be tough enough. Williams said that twice: tough enough.
These words were somewhat close to what Williams said about rebounding. He lamented—well, spat fire, really—that his team was letting the opponent "run right by you" rather than box out properly. The choice of words is important. He didn't blame poor skill; he blamed permissiveness ("letting"). Williams got pretty close to a truism about rebounding that you often hear from coaches (and players): that rebounding is a function of effort, will and desire, not so much technique. Mike Krzyzewski has said it; others have said it. Roy Williams called it "want to" after his team upset then-no. 1 Michigan State two weeks ago.
It may very well be true, and it leads to an overall trend in coachspeak lately: you can't coach effort (or you shouldn't have to). You, the coach, teach X's and O's, and your players bring the PDQ and the Y-chromosome to activate the design.
That sounds sensible, but like any widely disseminated notion, it's worth wondering about a little. Is it really true that coaches can't or shouldn't have to coach effort? Is it like what they say about teaching writing? A kid's got it or he doesn't? You want it or you don't?
Anyone who has seen, say, Dead Poets Society will tell you that a group of youngsters (to use Williams's pet word) can certainly be spurred to new, ultimately self-guided heights with the right inspirational strategy. Whatever Williams and his coaching staff are doing so far, it hasn't gotten consistent results, although it has gotten stellar results in places. That's how UNC-Chapel Hill has knocked off highly ranked Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, the first two on the road. In other words, the "want to" is in there. It just doesn't always come out.
Is saying that effort can't or shouldn't have to be coached a way of saying that it wasn't sufficiently coached, while also disowning the responsibility for that insufficiency? Yet, in Williams's case, that's hard to believe. Twice this season he has blamed himself, not his players, for Carolina's failures in losses to Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham. He had no such self-recrimination last night, and it is tempting to wonder whether he's getting frustrated that his tutelage isn't "taking." How many times does he have to wind up his toy soldiers until they can self-start? It's almost Christmas.
Point guard (and swing guard, and leading scorer, and so on) Marcus Paige obviously doesn't need the help, and he all but said after last night's game that he gives more effort than everyone else on his team: "I'm not going to sit here and say I give more effort than anyone else." "Everyone else" played a dangerous amount of lackadaisical basketball for the Tar Heels last night. (Whether they weren't "tough enough" to make their free throws is harder to quantify.)
Texas, on the other hand, kept attacking. They were the more physical, more intense, more active team. Their guards had no fear of taking the ball right into the lane. The Tar Heels knew they were going to do this, yet for the most part failed to stop it until late in the game.
"We said, 'They're gonna run at you,'" Williams told the media afterward, referring to what he told his team about Texas's trio of penetrating guards. "The scouting report said, 'Driver, driver, driver, driver, driver, driver, driver, driver.'"
That is eight drivers, and although he was talking about opposing guards, the sheer repetition of the word made it hard not to take Williams's meaning differently, in the gathering light of Carolina's inconsistently summoned effort. Carolina doesn't yet have its full, full-time drive. Maybe the problem is somehow technical after all: maybe "coaching effort" really means properly installing a driver in every one of the Tar Heels. It might just take more time.