Almost everything that happened in the first half of that basketball game I and many others, including surely Roy Williams and his staff, would have considered entirely plausible: fall behind early in the game while the other team gets hot and enjoys the support of an amped up home crowd, then make a bit of a run to get back into it, then go into halftime with a lot of work to do yet still very much in the game.
But almost everything that happened in the second half of the game—from conceding 54 points, to Kendall Marshall winding up with seven turnovers, to the bizarre ending, to the final score itself—came as unexpected shocks. The mentality of Carolina basketball over the years has always been that you don’t panic at an eight-point halftime deficit—instead you make the adjustments, play better, and win the game (or at worst, come close).
What is not supposed to happen is to let the other team come out with greater intensity and focus, allowing the lead to push into double-digits. And if you do get behind double-digits in the second half, what’s not supposed to happen is a panicked descent into poor shot selection combined with yet further defensive lapses.
It’s not supposed to happen, but it did. The egg Carolina laid in Tallahassee on Saturday afternoon was large enough to splatter on the face of everyone wearing light blue, including even a few writers (not to name any names) who thought this team might even be capable of sweeping the ACC this season. Carolina was hardly capable of even sweeping the floor of the Leon County Civic Center yesterday.
When these massive breakdowns happen, it’s tempting to resort to psychological and character-based explanations of the events. While there is a character issue in play—namely the character test Carolina now faces in bouncing back from this—that shouldn’t submerge the basketball issues. It would be great for this team to mature into what it clearly isn’t right now—a team capable of playing well with composure when seriously challenged on the road. But the primary task is to play better basketball going forward to prevent such situations from arising in the first place.
A lot went wrong Saturday. I’m not sure there’s much to be gained from analyzing how the deficit went from 15 to 30 in the second half. It makes more sense to focus on the accumulation of little and medium things, as well as one big thing, that got the Tar Heels in that hole in the first place.
The big thing of course is the inexcusable perimeter defensive effort. A lot of college basketball players are capable of knocking down two or three long distance shots in a row. That is normal. But when it happens, you have to adjust and take that threat away. Perhaps the most damning observation on Carolina’s defensive effort Saturday was that Deividas Dulkys hit four out of five three pointers in each half.
The small things include missed free throws, perimeter shooting, ball handling. If John Henson hits from the line in the first half at a reasonable clip, the Tar Heels would have been down just 4 points or so at half and the complexion of the game would have felt much different.
Similarly, Carolina hit just 2-of-10 from behind the arc in the first half. Drain a couple more of those—and Carolina had some good looks—and things probably open up even more for Henson and Tyler Zeller, both of whom were doing a good job scoring and drawing fouls inside in the first half.
Then there’s ball handling. Twelve turnovers in a half—the first half total—is obviously too much. Some were careless, some should be credited to Florida State, some came off good ideas with errant execution (a Marshall pass ahead to Zeller that flew well over his head out of bounds comes to mind), and some came off trying too hard to make a great pass.
Surely there are many more faults anyone who has the duty of watching the game tape will uncover, and it’s the coaches’ job to figure out more specifically what went wrong in each of those areas. But independent of the psychological questions resulting from Saturday’s game, working on improving foul and perimeter shooting in game situations, playing better perimeter defense, and taking better care of the ball is a plenty big basketball agenda.
The good news is Carolina has 13 more regular season games to get better, get it right, and accomplish the goal of winning a league title. The only that has changed in that respect is that this Tar Heel team has now acquired a legion of doubters, both inside and outside Tar Heel nation.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Every Tar Heel national title team (at least since 1957) has had its doubters and naysayers. It took a full year for the 2009 team to fully put to rest the Kansas Final Four debacle of 2008. Doubters and naysayers can help motivate a team. And generally speaking, it’s healthy for a team with big aspirations to be fully aware that no team is invulnerable.
But there a line between healthy self-doubt and a destructive loss of team confidence and cohesion. What’s important now is not Saturday, but how Carolina’s players respond to it.
Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.