SMITH CENTER/ CHAPEL HILL—Without question, it was a great weekend for North Carolina athletics. On Friday, the basketball Tar Heels received a commitment from the nation’s top high school basketball prospect, Harrison Barnes, and on Saturday the Heels’ gridiron squad outlasted Miami.
But the overjoyed vibes dissipated somewhat on Sunday afternoon, when the Heels suffered through a sloppy, disjointed performance against Valparaiso that created substantial anxiety heading into a difficult Thursday night challenge against Ohio State in New York.
First, the good news. Sophomore guard Larry Drew seems to be more comfortable balancing his playmaking with his scoring, and the Heels’ offense becomes much crisper when he makes himself a scoring threat. Senior Deon Thompson has been the best player on the team to date, and he enjoyed a big second half en route to 20 points, eight rebounds and three assists.
And on the whole, the team’s numbers don’t look so bad. The Heels won by double-figures, shot a whopping 56 percent from the field, committed only 14 turnovers (down significantly from the first two games), notched 24 assists, held a 19-rebound advantage, and held Valpo to 43 percent shooting.
So, what was the problem?
Mostly, it was losing a lead that had stretched into the 20s at the opening of the second half, along with a glut of ugly, unforced turnovers, particularly by Drew and even senior guard Marcus Ginyard.
Further, the Heels allowed two Valpo players — Brandon Wood and Brandon Mcpherson — to hang a combined 50 points against them. Perhaps most discouragingly, this Crusaders team was picked to finish eighth (out of 10) in its conference's preseason polling. Even by mid-major standards, then, this is not an especially good team.
All that said, everyone knew that the beginning of the season would be difficult. In addition to the various personnel struggles, Roy Williams has tinkered with numerous lineup combinations that will not sort themselves out until later.
Surprisingly, touted freshman John Henson appears to be losing playing time; he played only nine minutes against Valpo. Freshman guard Leslie McDonald, who is hoped to assist the team with backcourt scoring, currently is behind sophomore Justin Watts in the pecking order and played only eight minutes himself.
Clearly, the Heels need their freshmen to develop quickly. Many of the forced passes that led to turnovers were a result of a team playing without an offensive identity. Yes, they want to pound the ball inside, but Valpo’s use of a zone defense reduced the number of interior shot attempts. Until the perimeter players either shoot more effectively from deep or attack the basket off the dribble, it’s likely that Carolina’s offensive consistency will be lacking.
Those are the major story lines heading into later this week, when the Heels will play on back-to-back nights at Madison Square Garden as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. After Ohio State on Thursday, on Friday UNC will take on either Syracuse or California.
In the meantime, check out the UNC/Valparaiso box score here.