Lucas: The Running Game
Release: 01/03/2014

By Adam Lucas

If only it was always this easy for Roy Williams.

On Monday, the Tar Heel head coach identified three areas in which he wanted his team to improve:

1. Rebounding. After some first half struggles keeping the Seahawks off the offensive glass, Carolina promptly went out and clobbered UNC Wilmington 46-30 on the boards.

2. Playing defense. The Seahawks shot just 31.1% from the floor and were forced into 17 turnovers, as the Tar Heels pilfered a season-high dozen steals.

3. Running the floor. This one is harder to quantify, but it flows directly from those steals mentioned above. After scoring just 12 fast break points in the previous three games combined, Carolina posted 18 transition points on Tuesday.

"I get sleepy watching our guys go from one end of the court to the other," Williams had said on Monday. There was no such time for rest against the Seahawks, and it wasn't just the Tar Heel guards pushing the tempo.

On one second-half play, it was James Michael McAdoo leading the fast break and feeding J.P. Tokoto for a one-handed slam. Twenty seconds later, Kennedy Meeks triggered a fast break with a sharp outlet pass to Nate Britt at midcourt--Williams had pointed out earlier in the week his guards were coming back to the ball too much instead of sprinting out to start the attack--who then floated a perfect lob to James Michael McAdoo for a dunk.

Earlier in the half, Tokoto had soared for a skyscraping alley-oop dunk of his own off a pass from Leslie McDonald. While everyone saw Tokoto's vicious finish, not as many noticed that he actually created the play on the defensive end. That was where he denied the ability of his man, Tanner Milson, to receive a simple perimeter pass on the sideline, then recovered in time to thwart a backdoor cut. Unable to initiate their offense, the Seahawks turned the ball over, and Carolina capitalized with a highlight.

Williams loved Tokoto's defense on the play even more than he loved the altitude. Even before the sophomore completed the dunk, the head coach had already bounded off the bench in approval of the defense, shouting, "Good job, J.P., good job!"

"Coach expects us to make those types of plays," Tokoto said after the game. "They create turnovers and run-outs, and that's what we need to do to be successful."

The Tar Heels still aren't running quite as well as Williams might like after made baskets. When you think of the signature offenses of his Carolina career, it usually involves the opponent grinding for 25 seconds to score, and then the Tar Heels grabbing the ball out of the net and converting--whether via a Ty Lawson sprint or a Kendall Marshall pass--less than five seconds later.

That ability to impose a tempo on a team intent on slowing the pace will be important in ACC play. Three league opponents--Clemson, Virginia and Miami--rank among the nation's most methodical according to Ken Pomeroy's tempo ratings.

This year's team has shown an occasional commitment to pushing the pace even after makes on occasion, often when keyed by a precise Meeks pass. But they're still learning the value of running all the time, every time. Just as Tyler Zeller had to learn that his fullcourt sprints would be rewarded, so, too, are this year's Carolina big men finding that there are easy baskets to be had.

"Running is what creates all of those highlight type plays," said Isaiah Hicks. "Now what we have to do is get to the point that we do it without him yelling at us. It has to become a habit."

Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.


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