When you lose a game by 17, it's not just one thing, of course, it's a lot of things. Against UNC yesterday, the Wolfpack's "bigs" missed shot after shot in the lane -- a dozen scoops, half-hooks and double-pumps by State's Ben McCauley and Tracy Smith either rimmed out, rolled off or otherwise failed to go in from short range. Make half of them, and State loses by 5. Maybe. Meanwhile, Tyler Hansbrough had 31 for UNC on 12-17 shooting from the floor.
So when it was over, Wolfpack coach Sidney Lowe told the assembled media: "Their bigs out-played us, you know? That's it ...."
No, it isn't.
When you lose a game 93-whatever, your number-one problem is the 93 points you gave up--especially when so many of them were literally layups. The Tar Heels did not shoot the ball particularly well (5-for-15 from beyond the arc), but they shot an overall 56 percent nonetheless--and why? Because State cannot defend on the perimeter. Period.
With simple screens and weaves, and sometimes just by driving to their left (what a concept), the trio of Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green time and again beat their Wolfpack defenders into the lane, forcing State's big men to step out against them (a.k.a., breaking down the man-to-man defense). Then, easy pass to Tyler Hansbrough, Deon Thompson (10) or Ed Davis (6) for a dunk. Add a bunch of silly State turnovers in the backcourt that led to uncontested Tar Heel layups, and you have the numbers that jumped off the stat-sheet at the end: Points in paint: UNC 46, State 16.
Plain and simple, State's backcourt couldn't stop UNC's perimeter players, and never stopped them when it mattered.
And as much attention as there's been in the press of late on State's point-guard problems, that's really only half the story and maybe not the worse half.
From my press-row seat high above the RBC Arena, the thing that was most glaringly obvious about this game was that UNC's guards, especially Lawson early on, kept tough defensive pressure on the ball while cuting off the passing lanes to the off-guards. That forced a lot of useless Farnold Degand dribbling, plus the State throwaways.
At the other end, State's guards never pressured the ball or the passing lanes. And yet, even though they were sagging and inviting 3-point shots if anybody wanted to take them, the various backcourt combinations of Degand, Julius Mays, Brandon Costner, Courtney Fells, Trevor Ferguson and, by the end, Dennis Horner (yes, there was a time when Horner was playing in the backcourt) couldn't stop Lawon & Co. from penetrating. Any UNC screen, it seemed, and on the switch the State defender would be a step behind, leading to an easy basket.
Part of the problem is a sheer lack of speed in the State backcourt. Other than Degand, there's nobody fast back there. In fact, other than Degand and Mays, his backup, there really aren't any other guards back there, in the sense of guys who can move their feet and stay in front of a fast opponent. Let alone put any pressure on him. Fells and Costner tried yesterday, but not with enough consistency. Ferguson and Horner were more consistent in terms of effort, but were no match for an Ellington or Green.
State actually played pretty well offensively, the missed dinks aside. But the Pack was never in it after UNC turned an 11-11 tie into a 21-11 lead in between the first and second TV time-outs. After that, whenever State's shooters got hot and they cut the UNC lead to single digits, the Tar Heels would simply score, and score, and score and keep scoring until order was restored.
Don't look now, State fans, but after the hoped-for laugher this week against N.C. Central, three of State's next six ACC games are at against Wake Forest, home and away, and at UNC. That 2-5 league record isn't going to get any better unless State can somehow figure out how to stop fast guards from breaking down their perimeter. I'm not a coach, but if I were, I'd suggest working on some traps, because one-on-one, State's backcourt defense is lousy.