Tar Heels fall to Illinois, limp toward showdown with Kentucky | Sports

Tar Heels fall to Illinois, limp toward showdown with Kentucky

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It’s becoming painfully obvious that North Carolina’s basketball team requires an immediate and likely season-long readjustment of expectations. In the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night, the Heels lost at Illinois 79-67 in another woeful offensive performance.

Carolina shot 47 percent from the field — actually an improvement for them — but hit only 33 percent from the three-point stripe and suffered through a 47 percent night at the foul line. Some of UNC’s better shooting was delivered by blossoming sophomore John Henson, who tallied 16 points on 8-for-11 from the floor.

Along with Tyler Zeller and Justin Knox, the Heels’ big men combined for 34 points on 17-for-25 shooting. In Roy Williams’ system that focuses on high percentage shots, that’s winning basketball.

UNC also played gritty defense — particularly in the first half — and came within one on the backboards.

So what happened?

You probably could guess correctly: Carolina’s guards shot the ball terribly. At point guard, Larry Drew and Kendall Marshall combined for 1-for-5 and only five points. Though Drew did enjoy his best overall game of the season in terms of distribution (seven assists, three turnovers), Illinois simply didn’t respect the opposing floor generals on the perimeter.

Meanwhile, the picture was just as ugly on the wings. Starters Harrison Barnes and Dexter Strickland clanked shot after shot, hitting only 4-for-18 combined. Whatever else is happening, UNC almost always will pick up a defeat when its jump shooting is that poor. Someone on the team has to score to keep the defenses honest.

Ball-handling issues once again surfaced as well. Carolina committed 18 turnovers and enabled the Illini to score too many buckets easily, thwarting their hard work on defense. In all, it was just the latest example of inept basketball over the past two seasons.

Worst, no one can pinpoint a simple fix. Many fans want to see a change at point guard, but Drew clearly out-performed Marshall on Tuesday. Reggie Bullock is a talented freshman scorer who has been hampered by knee problems, but there’s only so much he can be expected to contribute.

Roy Williams eventually may have to make a choice: Invest for the future by training the players to operate within his preferred system, or make some dramatic tweaks to win more games in the short term and keep morale at an acceptable level?

The venerable coach won’t get much chance to reflect. Kentucky travels to Chapel Hill on Saturday and will be itching to deliver a beatdown in a match between two of the country’s most successful all-time programs. UNC will be at a clear athletic disadvantage in this matchup, and the Wildcats’ freshmen are playing far more confidently than their Carolina adversaries.

To see the UNC/Illinois box score, click here.

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