Tar Heels lack toughness in loss to Virginia

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Screening is often an overlooked part of most basketball games. But gauging how a team sets picks on offense and works through them on defense is a realistic method in determining just how tough and focused a club is on a given night.

In using that as a barometer in North Carolina’s performance at Virginia on Sunday night, the easy conclusion is that the Tar Heels didn’t show nearly enough toughness as the Cavaliers, and that’s why UNC lost 61-52.

There’s UNC’s 37.3 percent shooting from the field, nine assists on 19 made baskets, and that it was just 9-for-17 from the free throw line as evidence to why the Heels lost. There were issues in recognizing shooters on the perimeter and not communicating on defense. One can also see that the up-tempo Tar Heels managed just four fast-break points on the night, a signature strong suit in most of their victories.

But what Carolina’s loss really came down to is its problems getting around and through Virginia’s thorough screens on one end of the floor and a literal unwillingness to set them on the other end.

“Forty minutes,” UNC coach Roy Williams said when asked how often his team simply didn’t screen when they were supposed to. “I’m being serious, I thought it was the worst game we’ve had of setting great screens and using screens.”

Williams is known for hyperbole, especially after a loss, so the topic was addressed again, looking for more specifics. But the look on his face and repeated answer were clear.

“I’d say again for 40 minutes,” the coach responded. “You think about it, the shots that Reggie (Bullock) made, those were pretty tough shots. Think about it. For 40 minutes we didn’t screen the way we wanted to screen. If we had a set play where we wanted to screen they just busted right through it… So, 40 minutes.”

Screening requires toughness, and that has been an issue for the Tar Heels (10-4, 0-1 ACC) too often this season. They lacked it in earlier losses to Butler, Indiana and Texas, and it was clearly missing at John Paul Jones Arena.

When someone sets a screen, he knows there will be contact with an opposing player, and you have to maintain an element of toughness to properly carry it off. You can’t lay off and back up some because it won’t work, and you can’t hedge one way or the other or will be whistled a foul resulting in a turnover. So it’s either done the right way or not at all.

Screens were rare for UNC on Sunday. One of Bullock’s 3-pointers came off a pick, and it was a loose one at that, and also came right out of a timeout. Otherwise, Carolina’s offense lacked everything that touches base with anything remotely high IQ. And it began with the players’ unwillingness to toughen up and set screens and properly run off of them with the few that were set.

“I don’t know, we go over it in practice every single day – we’re going to go over it in practice (Monday)…,” senior guard Dexter Strickland said about screens. “We have to do better on defense on the screens, guarding the ball, we have to screen them the way they screen us.”

Bullock, who scored a career-high 22 points, acknowledged the Tar Heels need to raise their toughness exponentially.

“A hundred percent more tougher than we are right now,” he said when asked how much tougher the Heels must be. “By me being a leader on this team I hate losing, and I know players on this team hate losing. Some way somehow we have to be able to turn this ship around, get it going the right way and get confidence.”

UNC led 34-26 with 1:21 left after Bullock drained a line-drive 3. Virginia outscored them 35-16 until the Heels made two free throws in the final seconds. No mental or physical strength and toughness results in domination, and Williams acknowledged his team was dominated in the second half.

Everything broke down for the Tar Heels, which is another sign of lacking the fortitude necessary to win on the road in the ACC and become the kind of team their jersey and the history it reflects mandates.

North Carolina displayed required toughness in beating UNLV eight days earlier, so maybe Sunday’s lesson was yet another example of needing to bring it every game. At some point, you think the Heels will get it.