Marcus Paige and the Tar Heels blew a late eight-point lead in the loss to the Bruins. (Getty Images)
Normally when a small school like Belmont wins a road game against a traditional power like North Carolina, it is deemed a major upset. But the Bruins’ 83-80 victory in Chapel Hill Sunday afternoon did not look like a big surprise. This statement has more to do with North Carolina’s team right now than it does with Belmont’s. After a lackluster win over a lightly-regarded Holy Cross on Friday night, Rush The Court ACC microsite columnist Lathan Wells pointed out that North Carolina was suffering from an offensive identity crisis. As of Sunday, the Tar Heels are still looking for answers.
The story of the first half was certainly the pathetic 9-of-28 free throw performance by North Carolina, leaving the Heels behind by seven points at the half. They were better from the charity stripe in the second half but still finished a dismal 22-of-48 for the game. For a team with only one perimeter shooting threat in Marcus Paige, attacking the basket aggressively against the smaller Bruins would appear to be a sound strategy. The problem was that the two guys repeatedly getting fouled are both bad free throw shooters. J.P. Tokoto and James Michael McAdoo were a combined 15-of-35 from the free throw line on Sunday, but that's not a total shock given their history: McAdoo shot 58 percent last year and Tokoto managed to make only 38.5 percent of his free throws. So maybe that strategy isn't so great after all. The only real effective thing North Carolina did on the offensive end was hit the glass. The Heels collected 21 of their misses out of a possible 43, for a phenomenal offensive rebound rate approaching 50 percent.
The favored team's effort is sometimes a factor in upset games, but that was not the case in Chapel Hill. In addition to its work on the offensive boards, North Carolina did well in other hustle stats, forcing 16 turnovers (including 11 steals). Rather, execution and poise doomed the Tar Heels. After a spirited comeback brought the Heels back from an 11-point second half deficit, North Carolina collapsed down the stretch. In the last 2:37 of game action, Belmont outscored UNC by a margin of 13-2. During that run, Paige had three turnovers and the Tar Heel defense somehow allowed Belmont senior J.J. Mann to hit three consecutive three-point baskets. After the final trey with 14 seconds remaining, the Heels looked disorganized in its attack. Instead of getting the ball to Paige, it was Tokoto who ended up missing a hurried shot. With such a young team on the floor, it looked like a great time for a North Carolina timeout to try to set up something better. Perhaps that's what Roy Williams was referring to in the post-game press conference when he said, "I let my team down at the end." For this team, playing harder is not as important right now as playing with more poise.
Of course, much credit should go to Belmont. Even though they are not considered as talented as the last three Bruin teams, which all played in the NCAA Tournament, this is a program that has a winning culture bigger than just the individual talents of the players. Belmont has been winning for years, and they played Sunday like they expect to keep that tradition going. In the post-game press conference, veteran head coach Rick Byrd pointed out that Mann was a key player two years ago when Belmont almost upset Duke in Durham in their 2011-12 season opener. That experience paid dividends in Sunday's win in Chapel Hill. Mann came into this game struggling with his outside shot and only made two of his first 11 three-point shots against North Carolina. But the senior rallied with that closing flurry, including the game-winner that Mann called "a dream come true" after the game.
One player's dream is another's nightmare, and the current Tar Heels are now experiencing the latter. Without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald as options in the lineup, there are no easy solutions. The makeup of the current roster is just too imbalanced. By conventional position, there are four power forwards, three point guards, two centers, one wing forward, and zero wing guards on the roster. No matter how Williams puts the pieces together, there are going to be big holes in the lineup. McAdoo is playing well but has not faced athletic size yet, so he may yet have a tough time when the schedule gets harder. Paige is having to carry the perimeter offense but is getting little to no help. Nate Britt and Luke Davis clearly are not equipped to initiate much offense - neither tallied an assist in a combined 46 minutes on Sunday. If Britt can't be more of a threat, perhaps going really big would be the best bet, because at least that would move Paige back to the point guard slot. Switching to a smaller lineup was the key for last year's team, so maybe the opposite would help this struggling squad.
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