UNC-GT: The Good & Bad

UNC-GT: The Good & Bad

It was just 12 days ago that North Carolina defeated then-No. 6 Connecticut for what was arguably the biggest win of the year, if not the Matt Doherty era. On Wednesday night in Atlanta, UNC's 88-68 loss to Georgia Tech just might have been the worst loss of his tenure.

In an obviously huge game for the Tar Heels, they gave their worst performance of the season and suddenly are faced with the reality that losses to Wake Forest (Sunday) and Duke (next Wednesday) would give them a 2-6 Atlantic Coast Conference record midway through the league schedule, which would put them on pace to equal last year's 4-12 ACC mark.

Here is a look at the good and the bad of UNC's eighth loss in 19 games, and fourth in six ACC contests.

GOOD

Jawad Williams – As off as Williams was at N.C. State on Sunday he was on at Tech, scoring 22 first-half points on 8-10 shooting, including 3-3 from 3-point range. He was comfortable and let the game come to him, never forcing the issue. He took only three shots in the second half (missed them all), but his performance in the first period pretty much kept Carolina close enough to have a semblance of hope at halftime.

Jackie Manuel (2nd half) – Manuel was once again an adventure with the ball in the first half, but came on strong in the final 20 minutes. All of his nine points came in the second half and he contributed a pair of assists. He was aggressive taking the ball to the hole and rarely lost control of it.

Raymond Felton (1st half) – Felton was solid in the first half, scoring nine of his 11 points, handing out four of his six assists, and nailing two of his four 3-point attempts, of which both were big.

Close for a while – On a night when UNC clearly didn't have its A game, or B or C for that matter, and some might argue D, the Heels still were within six points with 10 minutes left. It's hard to imagine how, other than a few solid spurts and Williams' shooting, they were relatively close. Not sure where the credit goes here. Being that close as poorly as they played is actually pretty amazing when you think of it.

Start of 2nd half – Trailing 51-38 at the half, Carolina got its wheels going using increased defensive pressure and more alert passing, which led to a 14-8 start to open the half.

Free throws – UNC was an acceptable 15-21 from the charity stripe for the game. Considering how poor they have been of late, this was one positive to take from this bludgeoning.

Damion Grant - Looking for another positive? Grant blocked one shot and altered another attempt by Bosh, drew two charges, had three rebounds, and hit both of his free throws in 11 minutes of action.

BAD

Effort – The Heels just didn't look like the total effort was there other than for a few spurts. It's hard to understand how this could be considering the importance of this game. The players mostly said they felt the effort and intensity was there, but anyone watching likely thought otherwise.

Defense – This was the team's worst performance of the year. N.C. State and Kentucky both hit a ton of contested shots, but Tech's were mostly wide open. UNC did not rotate or communicate well, and the helpside defense was almost nonexistent. Every time Tech needed a bucket they got one - a wide open look, and of course drained it. The Yellow Jackets also had 22 assists, an example of how UNC just didn't handle its responsibilities well.

Offense – This team has some major issues offensively. They only have three quality ACC caliber offensive players – and a few more decent ones - but for some reason their approach is to freelance instead of running sets to get more open looks. There is little screening except for picks on the ball on the perimeter, which often goes unused and results in lousy spacing. There are few backdoors, few kickouts from the post (Byron Sanders may not be a scoring threat, but the offense should still go through him on occasion), and on many possessions Wednesday night, rarely did the Heels pass more than a time or two before launching a long shot.

They play with little understanding of the value of shot selection and often look undisciplined with the ball. Some players put the ball on the floor right away when on the perimeter as if they have never been informed of being in a triple threat position, thus making an already easy team to defend easier. Passes are often telegraphed, and on nearly every possession one can see as many as three and even four Tar Heels standing while another dribbles the ball 25 feet from the basket. The movement is poor and as a result, UNC is a mediocre offensive team.

Rashad McCants – McCants is a wonderful talent and has been incredible at times this year. But he also disappears in lengthy stretches, and appears to play at two different levels: extremely intense, and occasionally intense. At just 18 years of age one can understand his inconsistencies, but with basketball a priority in his life, and being a scholarship player for one of the game's fabled programs, one would think he would rarely have trouble getting up for a game and giving maximum effort for 40 minutes, especially a contest as big as Wednesday's was.

His defense against Tech was poor. The quickest player on the floor, he looked a step slow much of the night. His offense was almost as bad. He didn't fight enough to get the ball, stood around too much, and appeared to be sulking for much of the game. Many have been critical of Matt Doherty for his relationship with McCants, of which few know the real truth. But it's clear that McCants, who has been described as "moody" by former coaches and teammates, might be responsible for some of the problems. He is a gifted and intelligent young man, but must improve how he handles on-court adversity and should also understand that many eyes are on him, so when he is slower than usual, observers are led to negative conclusions about his effort. He wasn't alone on Wednesday, but it has been clear of late that when McCants is doing all of this "X" stuff and playing up to the crowd, he is completely into the game and plays exceptionally well. If he is the team's best player, the go-to guy, and wants to be its leader, he must act accordingly every night.

He finished the Tech game with just 12 points (5-18) and in the last two games has only five points in the first half.

17-1 run – Carolina trailed 66-60 with 10:02 left. Exactly 7:04 later the Heels were behind 83-61. Tech went on a 17-1 run that saw UNC miss 10 straight shots, most of which were quick attempts that showed little patience. In nearly every game UNC has had such a drought, and continues to run the same stuff. The players have said time and time again they rarely if ever run set plays when going through these ugly stretches, which defies logic. The Heels aren't the gifted team too many of their fans think they are. Often playing essentially three on five offensively, they rely way too much on the natural skills of a pair of freshmen and an up-and-down sophomore. Rarely do they run simple sets to get a solid look. Backdoors? No. Constant cutting, screening, and rolling? No. Texas Tech, as an example, didn't have any players the level of Felton or McCants last year, and probably nobody better than Williams either, and yet they constantly got high percentage shots. Why? Because they knew how to work to get good looks, and understood spacing and patience. If UNC did it wouldn't have so many droughts, of which most cost them victories. Even without Sean May Carolina should have beaten Iona, Miami, and probably Virginia thus far, but were done in by droughts. They could well be 14-5 overall and 3-3 in the ACC, and certainly on track for an NCAA bid.

Matt Doherty – This must be made clear. Doherty has done an excellent job on many fronts. For the most part, this is an excellent defensive team, and with May out he has kept the Heels above water, perhaps until now. The offensive problems are the result of one of two things: either the players don't obey orders and directions, or Doherty doesn't have them run much set stuff, which would be hard to understand given their individual limitations. If he is calling for them to run some type of organized offense and they aren't then perhaps finding players that will is in order. If not, one must question why. As solid as this team is in certain areas, and as much as Doherty has had a positive impact on the team, the Heels still play as if they skipped Basketball 101 when with the ball.

They did little changing defenses on Wednesday. Sure, Tech was hitting from the perimeter, but why not throw different looks at them? Force Tech's freshman point guard to recognize different defenses and for the Jackets to constantly change the type of offense they were in. It also may have mentally challenged the Heels enough to get them into the game. And with UNC's obvious interior issues, why not trap more. For every turnover that leads to a fast break basket UNC gets, it balances out an offensive rebound for a put-back or an easy look inside for the opposition.

Doherty also didn't play senior Will Johnson because he said David Noel deserved the minutes by virtue of how he played at N.C. State, a game Johnson scored six points in eight minutes. Johnson isn't going to put 14 on the board each night, but he is a good shooter and may nail a couple of 3s to get things going. He also tries to execute the basics on offense, always displaying an understanding that spacing is so crucial to success. Noel will be a nice player one day, but isn't yet. He does some solid things, but is developing basketball instincts because he currently has few. Does Noel need minutes? Absolutely. Does Johnson need and quite frankly deserve playing time for all he has done and because he can help the team? No doubt. Doherty says he looks at seniors Johnson and Jonathan Holmes as leaders. Yet, how can they lead when they don't play? Holmes' playing time is somewhat understandable, but Johnson deserves at least 10 minutes a game, especially when that time is otherwise going to Noel, who had two points and two rebounds in 24 minutes against Tech. The Heels need maturity on the floor, something Johnson would provide.

Doherty was also calling for the Heels to purposely foul down 20 with three minutes left. He only did this for a few possessions, but still, why?

And lastly, he wasn't trying to get called for a technical foul, but he got one nonetheless, and it couldn't have come at a worse time. Carolina was in the midst of an 8-0 run and was playing with some energy. Whether it was intentional or not, he had to know it was coming. Doherty had been riding the officials pretty hard for the prior few minutes. Many on press row weren't surprised a tech was called, and were amazed when he got it. True, UNC did eventually cut it to 66-60, but perhaps the post-technical lull was the difference between cutting the margin to six and actually taking the lead, which would have forced the Jackets to respond, and it may have given the Tar Heels the impetus to close things out.

The "G&B" has been kind to Doherty, always pointing out positives when justified. But identifying negatives is also part of the job description here. Too many UNC fans look at praise as personal support, or criticism as negative attacks. These are just observations, and are quite justified.

Doherty is capable of turning this team around as quickly as Sunday. He's generally a good motivator and prepares the Heels well for opponents. So a win certainly wouldn't be a shock. But the team's back is clearly against the wall, and while the players have to execute and perform, so does the coach. It's as simple as that.

UP NEXT

The Tar Heels return home to face Wake Forest Sunday evening at 5:30. The game will be televised nationally by FoxSportsNet.


Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He also covers the ACC for the Wilmington Star-News/Morning Star and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.

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