by Barry Jacobs, GoHeels.com
Confidence, real confidence, is a peculiar quality of mysterious manufacture.
Where there's a tradition of achievement, as in a proud program like North Carolina's, confidence is presumably transmitted with the uniform, conveyed from coaches to players and from veterans to newcomers as a matter of course.
Only it's not that easy. Confidence is a state of mind, as elusive as a cat outdoors. It can grip an individual or a team, building upon itself through repeated success, or dissipate in falling-domino fashion through repeated mishaps.
"Any shooter would probably tell you, shoot with confidence and believe that every shot that you take is going in," Reggie Bullock said of the proper mentality.
Twice in the past four seasons a wave of early departures short-circuited Carolina's customary system of reinforcing values and standards. That made for some shaky performances, along with various expressions of dismay and frustration from coach Roy Williams.
Of course, Williams is apt to identify flaws for correction under most circumstances. Favorites this year have been fluctuations in effort from one half to the next, a dearth of rebounds, a surfeit of turnovers. But the 2010 group, and this one, made such critiques a bit too easy.
Then, three weeks ago at Duke, Williams shifted his lineup and something clicked for the Tar Heels. They looked less like a team searching for its stride and more like a cohesive unit. They flowed, exhibiting greater focus and effectiveness than was the case prior to the change.
"I think we're getting more confident, and we should be," Williams said after his Heels routed Florida State, their fifth straight victory with a smaller alignment and a scaled-back rotation.
The contrast in performance by the squads competing that day at the Smith Center was glaring, less from a statistical viewpoint than one of efficiency and, yes, confidence.
Carolina shot 55.4 percent for the game and had 20 assists against 11 turnovers. "They seem to have found their way," said FSU coach Leonard Hamilton. "They seemed to be in sync."
Contrast that with Hamilton's squad, which hit 37.1 percent from the floor and had 15 turnovers compared to 10 assists. By the coach's count his club missed 11 of 13 close-in shots during the first half alone. That's against a group of Tar Heels who rank near the bottom of the ACC in blocks.
Hamilton attributed his team's misses partly to UNC's defense, and partly to the snowball effect of repeated failure on his immature team. Once the misfires began, Florida State's own doubts had a tangible impact, negating its considerable interior height advantage.
In keeping with our theme, players lost confidence.
Meanwhile Williams' less traditional lineup had a salutory effect, clearly evident after a quick perusal of stats.
Prior to the lineup change UNC forced opponents into more turnovers than assists in 15 of 23 games. That's right around two-thirds of the time. Impressive.
Investigate a bit more fully, and it's evident that wasn't good enough.
Half of Carolina's losses came in the eight contests in which opponents had more assists than turnovers. That's a 50 percent failure rate. In the other 15 games, when opponents had more turnovers than assists, UNC lost only three times.
The defensive trick, then, was to force opponents into more ballhandling mistakes than they were able to execute passes to set up baskets.
That mission was accomplished in all five post-Duke games with the Heels employing their new, more mobile lineup. With more ballhandlers on the floor and greater fluidity overall, the Heels had more than two assists for every turnover (95-46) over that span while their opponents combined for 61 assists and 80 turnovers.
Williams' shift to a two-guard, two-wing, one-forward alignment also was accompanied by an uncharacteristic shortening of his bench. In the 23 outings prior to visiting Duke, North Carolina had its usual 10 players average at least 11 minutes per game. In the six games since, the entire bench barely averaged a cumulative 24 minutes, 12 percent of the playing time.
A single reserve, Brice Johnson, played as many as 11 minutes in a game - in a comfortable win against Virginia -- since the Durham contest.
Pre-Duke: current starters Dexter Strickland, Marcus Paige, Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston, and James Michael McAdoo, along with perimeter sub Leslie McDonald, got 70.1 percent of the minutes. From Duke onward: those same six have commanded 88.2 percent of the playing time.
The change in apportioned opportunity put more experience on the floor than was previously the case.
Three of the top six players (Strickland, Bullock, McDonald) are upperclassmen. Sophomores Hairston and McAdoo saw more than 1,000 minutes of action between them in 2012, sufficient seasoning to qualify them as veterans. No other returnee played more than 123 minutes last year; Paige surpassed that level of experience five games into the '13 season.
"We're still growing," Williams said after the Heels handled N.C. State at Chapel Hill for the 10th consecutive time. "I'm pleased with some of the things we're accomplishing right now."
Cultivating confidence among them.