The Tar Heels entered the weekend as a clear favorite to win both of their games — the Runnin’ Rebels defeated USC on Friday to set up the final match-up — but simply were overwhelmed by UNLV’s torrid shooting and their own lackluster play on both ends of the court.
Let’s begin with the 90-80 defeat to the Runnin’ Rebels. Collectively, Carolina’s gravest concerns surround the club’s poor rebounding and free throw shooting. UNC typically rebounds very well for Roy Williams — including this same group of guys last season — and you’d expect that problem to dissipate, but the Heels failed to corral rebounds in both Vegas games (losing the battle 48-39 versus UNLV) and previously were ransacked on the glass by Michigan State.
On free throws, the Heels are hovering at about 60 percent as a team. They shot 25 free throws in the second half alone against UNLV but converted only 15; in a 10-point game, the effect is obvious.
Individually, the frontcourt performed disastrously. Tyler Zeller and John Henson played meekly and shot just 10-for-28 combined. Harrison Barnes reverted back to his November form from a season ago, scoring 15 points but doing so in a 6-for-16 shooting outing.
Things don’t get prettier in the backcourt. Ironically, the Tar Heel starter most frequently cited as one who should sit — Dexter Strickland — is the one who has been most consistent this season. Strickland and playmaking maestro Kendall Marshall aren’t a natural guard tandem, however, because neither player is a shooter. Marshall and Strickland are a combined 3-for-10 on threes this year, and Strickland hasn’t hoisted a single attempt.
The lack of offensive balance poses a problem and will continue to facilitate defenses focusing on Carolina’s interior exclusively. Of course, reallocating more minutes to a shooter such as P.J. Hairston — the freshman wing was the lone bright spot against UNLV — would involve a cost, because Strickland is the team’s best perimeter defender and Marshall is the quarterback of the offense.
Quickly, let’s also touch on South Carolina. The Gamecocks are desperately bad this year, and the 87-62 UNC victory appeared a more gentle beating than might have been the case. If you’re looking for foreshadowing, though, the Gamecocks did out-rebound the Heels 43-35. Marshall was the star of that contest, adding 14 more assists to his season total and contributing six steals as well.
UNC returns home for a primetime showdown against Wisconsin on Wednesday, then travels to Kentucky to face the team most likely to be voted No. 1 now that the Heels have fallen. Click here for the UNC/UNLV box score and here for UNC/South Carolina.