It looked like UNC was the better team on paper and on the court for much of the night, and for many in the stands, it sure felt like the game was wrapped up about with about 11 minutes to play. But with Raymond Felton taking an extended break and the Heels up by ten, the team appeared to lose focus. By the time Felton returned, his running mates looked tentative, and previously smooth jumpers looked tight before rimming out. Nike toughened up their interior defense to cause further problems. Where Sean May was shredding Nike's centers with an array of deft post moves and outside jumpers in the first half, he was thwarted by double-teams that denied him the ball late in the game. While numerous Tar Heels had good looks to keep the lead or restore it, they failed to drop. Before anyone knew it, the clock had run under a minute, and Nike had surged ahead. By the time Carolina appeared to recognize they were in trouble, it was too late to make a change.
So what went wrong? The final 20-5 run by Nike, including a 13-0 spurt to put the game away, tells much of the story. Other facts like Carolina's 10-21 performance at the foul line and the absence of Jackie Manuel and Rashad McCants due to injury might also provide an easy explanation. What's left could be ascribed to the jitters of a first close game for a freshmen-led team, or some unlucky bounces down the stretch. This team is still a toddler that's going to bump its head every once in a while, but that doesn't constitute an emergency.
Still, if winning masks negative trends, losing bathes them in cold light. The fact is that Carolina has shown its weaknesses clearly in its two exhibition games, even as it has shown the strengths that may lead to marked improvement this season. But after dropping a game to a team UNC clearly should have beaten handily, it's difficult to ignore a few early warning signs.
The Tar Heels' interior defense was exposed time and again against Nike. This facet of Carolina's game was tested little against an EA Sports team that launched threes like layups for much of the game. But a couple of slashing guards and big, agile post players for Nike revealed that this young team can be pushed around and beaten if rotations on help defense aren't sharp. Nike's players spent much of the game shooting from within four feet of the rim, and the resulting high percentage shots doomed the Heels on a night where their shots weren't falling late. Some nights this team will be hitting on all cylinders to outshoot just about anyone, but in a long regular NCAA season, UNC can't rely on its gunners to bail them out. The defense has to get tougher, and the teaching has to go quickly and well.
Teaching and learning fall to both players and coaches, but there are some decisions the players can't control, and the frustrating end to Wednesday's game will also revive some of last season's concerns about Matt Doherty's game management. It was apparent that his young charges had gotten a little loose as they nursed a second-half lead. But as that lead evaporated, the offense got away from what worked--Felton driving and May working inside--instead rushing perimeter shots on some possessions and then passing on open looks on others. Doherty chose to let the flow of the game unfold without calling a timeout to refocus his troops, and the results were not positive.
If there's a silver lining to Carolina's 76-72 defeat, it might be that the loss cooled fan enthusiasm and expectations that were in danger of boiling over after previous high-scoring exhibitions. While David Noel played important minutes at three positions Wednesday, his shots were not dropping, and he was never able to assert himself inside against bigger players. Coming off an impressive, aggressive performance Saturday, Jawad Williams looked uncomfortable against a more physical opponent, and he never got untracked. Melvin Scott struggled with his shot despite playing a solid overall game. Will Johnson did yeoman's work on both ends of the floor but had trouble getting open, especially in the second half. Byron Sanders and Damion Grant put in their requisite minutes in relief of May, but neither was an offensive option. With Manuel and McCants on the bench, that left Felton and May to shoulder the load. And although May banked in a long three just after the buzzer, their impressive efforts fell short.
It's a shame, because both players were magnificent. Though Felton struggled at the line, he demonstrated he can get to the basket almost at will. On nights when his outside shot is falling, as it was in the first half, he will present opponents with an enormous challenge. May--speaking of enormous--matched up against a taller, heavier center for much of the night, and he often made it look impossible to guard him one-on-one. Dazzlingly quick for a player his size and saavy on both ends of the floor, May was perhaps Carolina's best defender and undoubtedly the best shooter on Wednesday. He even led the break on one second-half play that ended with him tripped and fouled, barely preventing what would have been the most exciting offensive moment of the night for the Heels. May and Felton played well enough for the team to win. And the Tar Heels almost did.
Unfortunately, "almost" doesn't show up in the box score. Fortunately, an exhibition loss doesn't either. But Monday's result assuredly will.
You can email Mark at email@example.com.