Maybe we should have seen this coming.
In hindsight, Virginia--especially on the road--was the absolute worst possible matchup for this particular Carolina team in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener. Under Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers have fully committed themselves to a slow-paced, possession-based style of basketball unlike almost anything else in the league other than perhaps Boston College. The Cavaliers average just 61 possessions per game, easily the fewest in the league and the fifth-fewest in the country--if you're wondering, the Tar Heels average 75.6 possessions.
Even when Carolina is at its best, it's often a frustrating, challenging assignment for the Tar Heels to win at Virginia. Even with four first-round NBA Draft picks on the floor last year, Carolina still needed a key late basket from Tyler Zeller to eke out a 54-51 win in Charlottesville. The previous season, the Heels scraped by with a 62-56 victory at John Paul Jones Arena, courtesy of some clutch late-game free throws.
Winning at Charlottesville in the Bennett era requires scoring efficiently in the halfcourt offense and being certain of one or two go-to offensive plays or players that can generate, at minimum, a trip to the free throw line. Those are areas where the Tar Heels are struggling, and it showed when Carolina went through over 24 minutes of game time--including the vast majority of the second half--when they didn't attempt a free throw.
"We settled for outside shots and we turned the ball over a lot," said James Michael McAdoo. "We just weren't attacking and going at them. That really showed in the lack of free throws in that stretch."
We're two months into the season now, so it's fair to say that there's enough data to allow Tar Heel fans to draw a pretty reasonable conclusion: Scoring is a challenge for the Tar Heels when the opponent is feisty defensively. Carolina has now played three games against foes that rank in the top 10 nationally in field goal percentage defense. In all three (Indiana, Texas and Virginia), there's been at least one lengthy stretch in which Carolina struggled to generate offense, eventually resulting in a big run by the opponent.
Indiana put a 28-6 blitz on the Tar Heels, Texas had a first-half run of 20-6 and then closed the game on a 20-7 stretch, and even methodical Virginia put together a 23-8 run over a ten-minute span.
Combined, the Tar Heels have shot 35.3% against those opponents, as compared to a field goal percentage of 47.8% against everyone else on the schedule.
It's not just a matter of making the shots that Carolina is able to get. It's also a question of getting better shots--not just the ones the defense is allowing, but the ones the Tar Heels want to take. At his radio show on Monday night, Roy Williams had some insight into how his team could create better scoring opportunities.
"(Marcus) has to do a better job penetrating," he said in answer to a question about freshman point guard Marcus Paige. "But you can say that, and if Joel (James) is in the game, the defensive player guarding Joel is in the lane. If Desmond (Hubert) is in the game, the defensive player guarding him is in the lane. So we've got to get better movement, and we've got to get Brice (Johnson) and James Michael in there a little bit more to do some things to give us more openings. You can't penetrate if the other team's big guys are standing in the lane."
Looking deeper, it's been generally acknowledged that Carolina must succeed from the perimeter this year in order to have a chance to win. In those three games against the teams best equipped to take away what opponents most want to do, the Tar Heels hit just 20.5% from the three-point line. Keep in mind that some of those errant shots have been late in games where they needed to come back, but the percentage was low even before they began hoisting the shots more rapidly. Against all other opponents, the Carolina three-point percentage is 39.6%.
The bad news: after playing three games against opponents in the top ten nationally in defensive field goal percentage, the Tar Heels still have five such contests remaining--two against Georgia Tech, two against Maryland and a home game against Virginia.
The good news, perhaps, is that one of those teams is not Miami, Thursday's opponent at the Smith Center in an important 7 p.m. tipoff. The Hurricanes are fairly slow paced (65 possessions/game) but rank 27th in field goal percentage defense, where they rank just below UNLV in that category.
Expect free throw shooting to be important. Miami is seventh in the nation in fouls committed per game, so the Tar Heels should get some opportunities at the charity stripe. That means the challenge will be converting them, which has occasionally been a struggle this year. Against the Cavaliers, Reggie Bullock was 4-4 from the stripe but the rest of the team combined was just 5-for-13.