By Adam Lucas
It doesn’t take long for Roy Williams’ players to learn the phrase.
Over and over—whether it’s preseason, the heart of the league campaign, or the postseason—he’ll repeat to them, “Attack, attack, attack…”
Then, once they’ve been on campus for more than 24 hours, they’ll intone, “…under control.”
Williams wants his teams to play to the absolute top end limit of their speed and aggressiveness—while being under control. The best example in his tenure as a head coach was probably Ty Lawson, who was a rambunctious freshman who careened all over the hardwood…and then became the most dangerous college player in the country by the time he was a junior and had mastered the “under control” part of Williams’ mantra.
That’s what has made the last two Carolina games so surprising. Specifically, it’s been the last three halves, during which the Tar Heels have committed a whopping 31 turnovers in 60 minutes of play. The eleven turnovers in the second half against Monmouth looked like an aberration in a ragged game, but then Carolina went out and coughed it up 20 times against Georgia Tech’s zone on Saturday in Atlanta. That’s a concerning trend entering tonight’s dangerous game at Littlejohn Coliseum, where Clemson is undefeated this year.
Dropping the first road ACC game of the season isn’t unfamiliar territory for the Tar Heels. The powerhouse 2012 club lost a 33-point debacle at Florida State, and the eventual 2009 national champions lost at Wake Forest. But some corrections are needed to avoid a perilous 0-2 start with a visit from NC State on the horizon.
According to Ken Pomeroy, Clemson has a defensive turnover rate (an estimate of turnovers per 100 possessions) of 23.0, which puts them in the top 25 in that category nationally. Clemson has a pretty simple formula: they don’t turn the ball over, they play defense without fouling, and they are effective at forcing turnovers.
Littlejohn will be a much more hostile environment than the solidly blue McCamish Pavilion, and committing another 20 turnovers would quickly turn the momentum towards a solid Clemson team looking for a marquee win.
“We need to be more aggressive without putting the ball in jeopardy,” Williams told Jones Angell on his radio show on Monday night. “We put the ball in jeopardy and made bad decisions.”
The Yellow Jackets created the turnovers with their zone. Clemson has been largely a man-to-man team this year, but some of the same principles that bothered the Tar Heels this weekend could be a factor again. This is not a Carolina team built around the slick passing of one particular facilitator—think the 2012 team and Kendall Marshall. Instead, it’s a squad that when it’s clicking, makes the extra pass at every position to create better shots.
Overall, it’s a good passing team. The Tar Heels have assists on 59.4 percent of this year’s field goals, a mark that would be third-best in the last ten seasons.
That’s part of what made Saturday so unusual. Up and down the lineup, the Tar Heels forced passes that weren’t there, missed passing lanes or threw the ball far too late or with no zip.
“A lot of (the turnover issues) are us being smarter with the ball,” said Justin Jackson. “We went too fast trying to force things.”
Some were lazy passes. Some were just bad passes.
Williams put it simply: “We were not in control of the mental side of game nor the physical side of the game against Georgia Tech.”
They’ll need both tonight. Pregame coverage begins at 6 p.m. on the Tar Heel Sports Network, with television coverage airing at 7 p.m. on ESPN2.