By Adam Lucas
CORAL GABLES—To summarize Saturday’s 77-62 loss at Miami, you could look through some of the ugly stats (zero fast break points, Miami with a 41-36 rebounding edge, a defense able to force just ten turnovers against a turnover-prone UM squad).
Or you could just look over at the Tar Heel bench late in the first half, as Carolina continued to flail against the Hurricane zone. Everything was going wrong. The Tar Heels were in a 1-for-19 stretch from the field. When they weren’t missing shots, they were turning the ball over. Carolina shot 20.7 percent for the half, the lowest percentage in a half since they made just 20 percent at Georgia Tech during the 2010-11 season. That game is instantly memorable; it’s the one that led to more playing time for Kendall Marshall. Shooting 20 percent in a half tends to stick out, and this one is likely to do the same. When was it that Carolina shot 20.7 percent in a half? Oh yeah, it was that day in Coral Gables when the Tar Heels made one of 19 field goals.
It was hard to watch and hard to play through. But there was something even tougher: not being able to play at all.
Theo Pinson, officially, was out for Saturday’s game only, with no word yet on his status for Tuesday night against Pittsburgh or beyond. “I would think in the next few days we’ll get some information,” Roy Williams said after the game.
But Pinson already knows the frustration of an extended absence. And as his team struggled without him in the first half, the distraught junior sat on the bench, in his boot, and was visibly upset. It was difficult to watch. Pinson still tried to contribute, still stood up and shouted his “Coach Pinson” instructions, but he very clearly was missing being on the floor.
Senior Isaiah Hicks put his arm around Pinson, patting his teammate on the back. “He kept saying, ‘Why did I have to get hurt?’” Hicks said after the game. “I told him he can’t worry about that. He just has to worry about getting better. There’s nothing he can do about it now, but of course no one wants to miss a game. He was putting a lot of stress on himself, and he doesn’t need to do that.”
Maybe, given that kind of emotion, we should have seen this coming. Pinson is so valuable on the court precisely because his teammates feed off his energy. With a speedy turnaround from Thursday night’s game and the uncertain status of Pinson’s injury, it’s probably natural that his teammates would get some carryover from his gloom, too.
He did everything right earlier this season when he had to sit out. He was patient with his rehab and he put in the work and he stayed positive and he counted the days until he could return, all the while telling his teammates how lucky they were to get to experience every play of every game. And now, there he was again, in a suit. What, would you rather they didn't care?
After a topsy-turvy week in the ACC and nationally, there will be a lot of talk about the league standings and bracket projections. Forget all of that. The most important thing in the next seven days that affects Carolina’s season will be the report on Pinson’s health.
The loss itself, honestly, isn’t that troublesome. Sure, you can say the Tar Heels will have to play two games in three days in the NCAA Tournament. But they won’t have to play a game, go to class the next day, take a flight to one of the farthest outposts in the conference, and then play a road game, all while trying to decide exactly how concerned they should be about the health of a teammate.
The most startling aspect of Saturday’s loss was the way Miami beat Carolina to seemingly every loose ball. Williams singled out a key sequence late, when the Tar Heels had closed within 11, forced an errant Miami shot…and then watched as the Canes retrieved it. The whole day went that way. The Tar Heels looked a little fatigued, and just maybe a little worried.
Remember when Pinson came back, and you were instantly reminded of all Carolina had missed without him on the floor? That's exactly what they were missing again on Saturday.
On the chalkboard, the most important offensive area that must be fixed over the next month and a half is the tendency of the UNC offense to give in when the opponent attempts to eliminate the paint as an offensive option. Combined, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks took nine shots against the Hurricanes. Even throwing in a handful of halfcourt traps, the Tar Heel defense couldn’t force enough turnovers—against a Miami team that had been the second-worst in the conference in turnover ratio in league games—to beat the Canes back down the court before they set up in the confounding zone.
“It’s hard to get out and run when you don’t get stops,” Hicks said. “It’s hard to get into transition without getting stops or turnovers.”
The Tar Heels return home Tuesday night to play Pittsburgh. After that, the schedule gets absurd. Carolina’s place in the league right now (tied for first with Virginia, a team they have to travel to on the back end of a double-road game 48-hour turnaround in late February) is bound to fluctuate through a stretch that includes a pair of games against Duke and Virginia, plus dates with Notre Dame and Louisville.
Bracket projections and league standings make very little difference until that gauntlet is run. Saturday’s outcome changes nothing about the fact that with a complete roster—there’s the key phrase—the Tar Heels are perfectly capable of emerging into March as the same national contender they were before Saturday’s game began.
The Miami game didn’t show us anything we didn’t already know. The Tar Heels have to make a few jump shots against a zone. The Tar Heels must be resolute about getting the ball inside, and the big men must continue to make themselves available, even when the opponent makes it challenging.
And they need a healthy roster, selfishly, so that we don’t have to watch them without a missing piece and wonder about what’s might have been. But more importantly, so that missing piece doesn’t have to watch them without him. That, more than a 15-point road loss or a few shots bouncing off the rim, is hard to watch.