The Tar Heels, in the semifinal of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on Friday night, dropped a 72-67 contest to Minnesota. Carolina shot only 37 percent from the field, a brutal conversion rate to which immensely touted freshman Harrison Barnes contributed an unimaginable 0-for-12 from the floor.
The team's numbers were equally chilling from the three-point stripe (22 percent) and the foul line (60 percent). In short, this was last year’s Tar Heels with different uniform numbers.
Barnes, Leslie McDonald and Reggie Bullock — the three wings expected to be the club’s best perimeter scorers — combined for 4-for-25 shooting. Despite that fact, much of the animus at the online communities has been directed at incumbent point guard Larry Drew, who looked rattled and suffered through a two-point, four-turnover outing.
The frontcourt is facing its issues as well. While John Henson continues to be a rebounding force — he added 12 more against the Golden Gophers — both he and Tyler Zeller were out-muscled repeatedly by more rugged opponents. UNC’s defense actually was pretty good for much of the game, but again, Minnesota hardly is considered a powerhouse in the Big Ten.
The most explosive questions confronting the team are thus:
1) What’s wrong with Barnes? A preseason All-America, he has been touted as the team’s top scoring weapon. But aside from the first half against Hofstra on Thursday, he simply hasn’t been able to shoulder the load so far. Part of the problem appears to be shot selection and too many jump shots, but against Minnesota he struggled to finish inside as well.
For perspective, future NBA hall-of-fame wing Paul Pierce struggled as a freshman in Roy Williams’ system at Kansas. And four seasons ago, Wayne Ellington was highly inconsistent as a newcomer. Wing players have to learn how to get their shots within the offense, and right now Barnes is looking to create his own outside the framework.
2) How does Williams manage personnel? It’s obvious by now that the returnees lack equivalent talent to the freshmen. This is most noticeable at point guard, where freshman Kendall Marshall has outplayed Drew in each of the team’s first three games and is making a quick push for a starting spot. And yet, Drew could be lost psychologically if he is demoted in favor of a freshman.
Sophomore Bobby Frasor handled his own demotion with grace when Tywon Lawson came aboard a few seasons ago, but certainly you can’t assume a junior starter ever will accept that kind of transition without negative consequences.
The larger issue is that Carolina looks vulnerable again, and it would be devastating for the program to suffer through another 2009-10 campaign. The odds of that happening to the same extent are very small, but Sunday’s contest against Vanderbilt in the consolation game will be extremely important to maintain control of the media narrative heading toward key matchups against Illinois and Kentucky.
To see the UNC/Minnesota box score, click here.