Tar Heels not quite ready for ACC rigors

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina may have defeated East Carolina on Saturday afternoon at the Dean Smith Center, but the Tar Heels are far from being ready for the rigors of the ACC.

This isn’t a simple issue of not executing an inside game, which was the case in last week’s win over East Tennessee State, this is far more encompassing. It begins at the point and ends in the paint, and other than perimeter shooting, there isn’t an area where this North Carolina team doesn’t need significant improvement, despite the 93-87 victory.

The Tar Heels aren’t a bad basketball team by any means. They are talented, have depth, have loads of long-term potential, and can be quite entertaining in stretches. They are also 8-2 and ranked No. 21 in the nation, after all, but they have some major issues, and without significant improvement the trek through the ACC could be a difficult one.

The following are some troubling areas UNC is capable of fixing:

— North Carolina is second in the league with a rebounding margin of 6.8, but that figure should be higher, even with North Carolina’s lack of accomplished length and bulk inside. And on Saturday, not one UNC big man grabbed an offensive rebound. UNC outrebounded the Pirates 40-36, but that’s pretty much without boxing out. Rarely do North Carolina’s bigs box out, which is a head-scratcher given how young and thin the front court guys are.

“I got more frustrated perhaps today than I have in a long time,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I look down at the stat sheet and no post player got an offensive rebound in the entire game.”

This was the first time that’s ever happened in his 26 years as a head coach.

“It’s an easy deal, anticipate your teammate’s shot…,” the coach said in a pleading manner. “Anticipate your teammate’s shot and go for the board.”

— The Tar Heels are solid in stretches playing man-to-man defense and can be effective employing various trapping schemes, but then have breakdowns that lead to easy baskets. There’s a reason ECU scored 61 points in the second half, shooting 46.2 percent from the 3-point line. Getting out on shooters, fighting through screens, communicating, and some of the general rules of Williams’ defense too often escaped this group, and this wasn’t the first time this has been an issue.

“We have a timeout and we say we’re going to switch every screen, then all of a sudden the big guy lays it up…,” Williams said. “We talked about everybody in the Army you have to be responsible for the other guy and that’s what we have to do in basketball, too.”

— Williams is working to find the right rotations, and as result the Heels appear too jumbled at times. Some groupings just don’t work as well as others, and this has affected the fluidity of how the team has played and margins in games. That could change once Williams settles more on a rotation, which could be a small one more often than not, as that unit may play to UNC’s strengths more than forcing added size in the lineup.

These next two areas will remain problems to a degree all season:

— Point guard is not yet a strength for Carolina in the manner it usually is. Freshman Marcus Paige isn’t a driver and distributor, though he is adept at swinging the ball quickly on the perimeter, which is an asset given UNC’s strength shooting from the perimeter. Senior Dexter Strickland (10 assists) has taken on more of a lead guard role, but he is a bit limited. Paige, though, hasn’t displayed enough instincts of the typical UNC point guard. Failing to get the ball from a struggling mate on the wing is an example.

“I am just trying to help get those guys involved,” Strickland said. “Trying to play team ball and get a win.”

— Points in the paint can be a very misleading stat for the Tar Heels. They scored 40 against ECU while allowing only 26, but the Heels got 14 points off of 10 offensive rebounds, most simple put-backs from the weak side. They also had six fast-break points, a back-side alley-oop dunk and a dunk by James Michael McAdoo off the opening tip. That leaves 16 conventional points in the paint, and not all were post-oriented.

“I feel like we were just taking what they gave us…,” McAdoo explained, clearly avoiding a negative. “I think that helped them have more of a defensive presence inside.”

Overall, UNC notched the victory but its coach isn’t a happy camper, nor should he.

“Right now, there’s not anything Ol’ Roy’s ecstatic about,” Williams quipped.

And for good reason.