After a relatively dormant month on the court, the post-Holiday Tar Heels were greeted by an exuberant crowd as they steamrolled Rutgers 97-75 on Sunday night. Nationally top-ranked UNC has won all 12 of its games by at least 15 points, a school record.
Power forward Tyler Hansbrough and point guard Ty Lawson continue to set the pace and arguably are the top two players at their respective positions in college basketball. Though he faces very stiff competition for national player of the year honors, Hansbrough clearly is playing at the All-American level (again). Against Rutgers he added 26 points and 10 rebounds — putting him at 1,000 for his career — while shooting 10-for-15 from the field.
Lawson, meanwhile, remains a paragon of efficiency. He hit 8-for-12 from the field for 19 points, and he added another six assists without a single turnover.
Not for the first time this season, an opposing head coach had high praise for Roy Williams' club:
"(UNC) is the best team that I've seen in my years of coaching," said Rutgers coach Fred Hill. "Our goal was to play at a certain tempo, but obviously they are great at making you play at their speed."
But while you can read about the power of this Carolina team just about anywhere, there are three emerging plotlines that need to be monitored closely in the coming weeks:
1) Flagging Team Defense — Early in the season, and especially against Michigan State, the Heels played a brand of attacking, stifling defense that limited their opponents' open shots and forced numerous turnovers. But while UNC's perimeter pressure continues to force errors, opponents recently have been getting cleaner looks from the perimeter and more frequent open alleys to the basket.
Lately, the 2008-09 defense has looked more similar to the 2007-08 defense. Rutgers shot 48 percent from the field and hit 37 percent on three-pointers, a number that was even better before getting dragged down by a few desperate heaves late. Perhaps out of frustration, Williams played Lawson 30 minutes last night, whereas most of the season his minutes have been limited to the 20s.
That said, it's easy enough to dismiss a few sloppy defensive performances. The Heels have had exams and the holidays this month, and along with that practice time has been extremely limited. Now that the relative quiet has passed and the competition is set to increase with the onset of the ACC schedule next weekend, it's quite possible the Heels will regain early season form.
2) The Wayne Ellington Situation — All of the team's crucial contributors have performed well throughout the season with the exception of UNC's wing guard. Ellington's floor game actually is much improved over a year ago, as he now passes and defends at a previously unseen level.
However, and this is a major however, his jump shot has been largely absent in recent games. He missed both of his three-point attempts against Rutgers and has hit just 5-for-22 in the past six contests.
Roy Williams obviously is acknowledging the issue from the sideline, as he went out of his way on Sunday night to applaud Ellington after several of his missed shots. He even called a set play to free Ellington for an open jumper to begin the second half. Whatever he says publicly, Williams understands better than anyone else that his team will need long-range assistance against elite competition.
3) The Marcus Ginyard Situation — Making his first appearance of the season against Rutgers to thunderous applause from the UNC crowd, Ginyard himself brings little mystery to the court. He has been a defensive stalwart for four years and also contributes solid passing and commendable work on the offensive glass.
The Ginyard situation, then, actually pertains to his teammates. Namely, how will the rotation change now that he's back in the lineup? Williams will utilize him at the wing guard and wing forward positions, and that makes several players likely to see a reduction in minutes.
Danny Green is playing so well that it seems unlikely that he'll be asked to sacrifice playing time, so the most likely candidates to spend more time off the court are Will Graves and Bobby Frasor. Additionally, either Deon Thompson or Ed Davis could be affected if Williams opts to use Green at the power forward position. And if Williams wants to preserve Frasor's minutes, he may utilize him as a backup point guard and thus cut into Larry Drew's playing time.
It's too early to know how Williams will arrange his substitution patterns or even to what extent they will be consistent. What is more clear is that if Ellington's confidence plummets and issue No. 2 becomes intertwined with issue No. 3, that will bode poorly for UNC's national title chances.
The Heels will travel to Reno on Wednesday night to face Nevada, then return home for their ACC opener Sunday versus Boston College.
To view last night's box score, click here.