LAHAINA-Friday night in Long Beach, Carolina had a learning experience, and it was all chuckles and grins because the Tar Heels emerged with a win.
Tuesday afternoon against Butler, Carolina had a learning experience, and it was about as much fun as a rainy day in Maui. The Bulldogs were tougher, more aggressive and hit bigger shots in an 82-71 win that was nowhere near that close for most of the game.
In the final 10 minutes, the Tar Heels made it interesting. They trimmed 22 points off the lead in a 10:16 stretch, an impressive burst. "When you're playing a program like Carolina, you know it's coming," Butler head coach Brad Stevens said.
When you're playing a program like Butler, though, you know that intensity is coming. And for the first 30 minutes of Tuesday's game, Carolina didn't look especially ready to counter that ferocity. In many ways, it was reminiscent of the November 2006 game against unranked Gonzaga, when a young Tar Heel team that was feeling pretty good about itself looked stunned by the way the 'Zags came out committed to maximizing every possession on offense and defense.
This time, against the same type of opponent, Butler had a 15-0 lead in second chance points early in the second half, because they dominated the glass. The Tar Heels didn't shoot a free throw in the first half (after shooting just nine against Mississippi State).
"We talked about it in the pregame that they're going to play really hard," Roy Williams said. "Let's make sure that we match that toughness, and we didn't match that toughness. That's my job as a coach to make sure that I get us to that level."
The head coach saw warning signs early: Williams stormed out of the very first UNC huddle of the game, when Carolina trailed 10-2 and had already been outrebounded 9-2. Butler's final rebounding edge would eventually be 39-29.
The struggles in the paint were epitomized by James Michael McAdoo, who had the game every eventual big-time player has to have on the road to being big-time. He finished with 10 points, four rebounds, seven turnovers and multiple occasions on which he appeared irritated with the physical nature of the play under and around the basket.
Somewhere, Tyler Zeller, Tyler Hansbrough and Sean May were nodding knowingly. That type of play is going to happen. Carolina wants to feed its big men, and opponents know the Tar Heels want to generate offense near the basket. It's never going to be especially easy under there, and Tuesday Butler--a program that thrives in these types of games, which is a credit to their coach--made it difficult from the very beginning. Kameron Woods played some tone-setting defense on McAdoo early, working hard to push the big man away from the basket and frustrating him with his aggressive play. McAdoo never really got back into the flow of the game, and the Carolina offense looked rudderless without him.
The sophomore learned an enduring truth on Tuesday: you don't just become the go-to guy because everyone else leaves. You become the go-to guy because you earn it, and part of earning it is enduring--and then recovering from--outings like Tuesday. Remember, it was approximately ten months ago that everyone was mumbling that McAdoo wasn't aggressive enough. Sure, he eventually exploded in the final month of the season, but the game against Butler--a program that started three seniors and a junior--was just the fifth game McAdoo has played in the last two years when his name was the primary one highlighted on the opposing scouting report.
His struggles against the Bulldogs don't mean he's incapable of being Carolina's centerpiece this year. It just means it's a process, not a coronation.
There's been plenty of talk about the Tar Heel freshmen learning how to play at the college level. But there are two very different kinds of leaps being experienced right now in Chapel Hill. There's the step from high school to college basketball, one that deals primarily with speed of the game and quality of opponents. And then there's the even bigger step from being simply a college player to being a go-to college player, which deals with intensity and expectations and all those intangibles you can't drill in the summertime. McAdoo, one of the most thoughtful players of the Williams era, realizes it. He didn't need to look at film to see what went wrong. Within 20 minutes of the final buzzer, he already had an insightful take on the game.
"They played great defense," he said of Butler. "They did a great job of getting me uncomfortable. That really showed in my performance today. I should never let another team dictate how I play. So I have to use this as a learning experience."
Those words were exactly right. It was more than just blaming lack of heart or saying the other team wanted it more. It was McAdoo identifying a problem, taking responsibility for the impact it had on him personally and expressing a need to correct the problem.
McAdoo could have been speaking for the entire team. Which, in many ways, is exactly the role the Tar Heels are asking him to grow into.