This North Carolina roster doesn’t possess championship quality, but certainly the Heels should not find themselves situated on the NCAA Tournament bubble for the second time in four seasons.
That 2009-10 campaign proved shocking because it occurred the season after Carolina’s glorious, Tyler Hansbrough-led national title run. Williams penned a book as something of a victory lap, and even with multiple player exits everyone expected him to assemble a crew that would rank among the nation’s top 25 the following year.
But a season that opened to mixed outcomes grew dire after several players suffered injures, while despised point guard Larry Drew failed to generate any confidence and the team careened into the postseason NIT.
So here we are in 2012-13. The Heels advanced to the Elite Eight the previous two seasons and suffered heavy personnel losses — including Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall — that most admitted limited the club’s ceiling to perhaps a Sweet 16 run, at best.
After 11 games, however, the Heels have yet to defeat a quality opponent in compiling a misleading 8-3 record. They’ll fall out of the top 25 rankings next week and don’t have the overall strength of schedule to offset dreadful outings versus the Longhorns, Butler and Indiana.
For the most part, this team has enjoyed good health. There’s meaningful experience, too. Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald all have spent at least three seasons with the program, and sophomore James Michael McAdoo earned valuable playing time last spring after Henson suffered a wrist injury. In today’s quick-to-the-NBA era, these Tar Heels can’t be categorized as young.
They’re also individually talented. Five McDonald’s All-Americans inhabit the roster, far more than most teams nationally — including some playing a hell of lot better than Carolina.
But rather than hammer the 2010 team again to make the point, let’s examine the 2011 crew. That year’s squad immediately seized the doldrums from their NIT predecessors, and this despite a talent influx that included Barnes, Marshall and Bullock.
They eventually discovered winning form, won the ACC and defeated three teams in the NCAA Tournament before bowing out gracefully to Kentucky in a thriller, and thus they effectively relegated their poor start to insignificance.
I believe the relevance lays here: Carolina improved dramatically that year not because of coaching adjustments, but largely because of Drew’s sudden departure at midseason.
Ironically, it was the Texas game in Greensboro drew the loudest wailing from fans. The Heels had fallen behind but stormed back behind stellar play from freshman Marshall, and then Williams subbed him out for Drew and UNC subsequently lost.
Drew continued to start and played the lion’s share of the minutes until a horrific outing at Georgia Tech, and finally Marshall became the starter. The team displayed renewed life immediately, but it wasn’t until the disgruntled Drew left for good — forcing Marshall to play an exhausting number of minutes — that the Heels became elite.
You might argue, with some support, that the 2011 team benefited from experience garnered during the season. That’s certainly true, and particularly for Zeller, but the Texas defeat occurred in mid-December. Even at that early stage, Marshall clearly led the team more effectively than Drew.
Thus, a rare and unforeseeable external personnel event provided the team with its salvation — not natural improvement or a coaching stratagem. We’ll never know how that team may have evolved had Drew stuck around, but two-plus seasons suggests they would have fallen shy of the Elite Eight.
And there’s no Marshall on the bench this season. Neither point guard, starting freshman Marcus Paige nor Strickland, has commanded the offense effectively against stiff opposition. The Heels have utilized a 10-man rotation, so there’s also no mysterious x-factor who will rise from the bench and don a cape.
Williams appears wed to his freelance offense for this team as well as his preferred man-to-man defensive principles — I think the bizarrely poor defense actually will improve without tweaking — so these Tar Heels likely will sink or swim without significant tactical intervention from their head coach.
Just as was the case in 2009-10 and early 2010-11, the disconnect between the squad’s individual talent and its collective performance has proved disorienting. At least offensively, the pieces don’t seem to fit the machinery. An offense predicated on interior scoring hasn’t worked, because there’s no interior scorer. Wings who have the freedom to create shots off the dribble don’t benefit because there are no players who consistently can beat their opponent in that fashion.
There’s talent, but arguably no fit for this system. Personnel style appears to be the gravest problem, not the more ridiculous charges that Williams has become senile or that locker room issues are devouring morale.
Still, you wonder how long he’ll wait for this team to play at an NCAA-worthy level before adjusting his preferred scheme to better accommodate the current roster. At this point the Heels may need to compile a 10-8 ACC record to make the tournament, and presently they’re not tracking to achieve such a mark.
Williams said postgame last night that his players have to believe what the coaching staff is teaching. But after another desultory performance against a quality team, could you blame them adopting the same increasingly skeptical view as the media and fans?