Tar Heels still looking to fill post
North Carolina, which struggles to find production in the post, could face a huge matchup problem today when it hosts Maryland at the Smith Center (noon, ESPN).
Led by 7-1 center Alex Len, the Terrapins (14-3, 2-2 ACC) are second in the country in rebounding margin (plus-11.1) and third in field-goal percentage defense (35.1), indications of how strong Maryland is inside.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels (11-5, 1-2) have struggled in the paint. In their most recent game, a week ago at Florida State, UNC coach Roy Williams turned to fourth-string center Jackson Simmons in the final minutes.
“We’re still searching to find great play from our post,” Williams said. “A lot of people say I’m still searching for that one guy. I don’t care if it’s one or all four; I just want us to play better in the post and be more aggressive, score more, shoot a higher percentage and keep the other team from shooting a high percentage.”
UNC sophomore Desmond Hubert, who has started at center recently, is a strong defender, and freshman Brice Johnson, who is averaging 8.3 points in 13.5 minutes, excels offensively. But, as Williams pointed out, “on the other side of the coin they don’t do very much.”
That’s not a problem with Len. The sophomore from Ukraine, who started the season by posting 23 points and 13 rebounds against Kentucky, is sixth in the ACC in rebounds (8.1) and third in blocks (2.1) while shooting 54.7 percent from the field.
Len tipped in a missed shot by Pe’Shon Howard with 0.9 seconds left in Wednesday’s 51-50 win over N.C. State, the Terrapins’ first victory over a ranked team in three seasons.
Besides Len, Maryland also has a pair of solid 6-8 forwards. Senior James Padgett, a two-year starter, is averaging 4.4 rebounds and 6.2 points on 59.7 percent shooting, while Charles Mitchell is third among ACC freshmen in rebounding (6.2) and averages 5.8 points.
Freshman center Shaquille Cleare, who is 6-9, started and played 24 minutes Wednesday.
“They have tremendous depth,” Williams said. “They can run those bodies in and out, and they’re experienced.”
UNC’s only established big man is power forward James Michael McAdoo, who leads the team with 14.4 points and 8.1 rebounds a game but prefers to operate away from the basket.
Despite that, the Tar Heels also are strong on the boards, placing second in the ACC (and tied for 31st nationally) with a rebounding margin of plus-6.6.
Williams said he places a huge emphasis on rebounding. For instance, anytime he sees someone not boxing out in practice, the whole team stops and runs.
“My first year at Kansas, I had a prospect come in and say, ‘I thought there were 10 commandments, but there must be an 11th, Thou Shalt Box Out,’” Williams said.
While Maryland may have an advantage in the frontcourt, UNC point guard Marcus Paige hopes it is negated by the Tar Heels’ strong perimeter play.
“Hopefully, we’ll try to get the score up a little higher and run and use our athleticism to our advantage,” Paige said.
Both teams are coming off big wins — Maryland fans stormed the court after the N.C. State game, while UNC finally got a conference win at Florida State.
Paige said Friday that the previous time the Tar Heels won an important game — a victory over then-No. 20 UNLV — the team got complacent and wasn’t focused enough during the ensuing two-game losing streak. Williams warned the Tar Heels not to let that happen again.
“I told (the team), ‘We followed up UNLV and didn’t play very well. Let’s follow up this one and play better,’” Williams said. “The college game is so crazy. ... You never know how kids are going to react.”
Reserve guard Leslie McDonald likely will miss a third consecutive game with what the team is calling a “tweaked” right knee. Williams said McDonald doesn’t feel comfortable and hasn’t gone through a full practice this week.
The redshirt junior, who missed the 2011-12 season after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his right knee, is the team’s fourth-leading scorer at 8.4 points per game and is shooting 43.1 percent from 3-point range.
The Tar Heels definitely will be without third-string point guard Luke Davis, who won’t dress because of a left ankle injury.