Tar Heels ‘somewhat successful’
Over the past six weeks, North Carolina fans saw a surprising lineup switch, a shortened rotation and the overall development of a young team.
In the end, it didn’t change one simple fact — no matter what changes they made, the Tar Heels (25-11) just weren’t good enough to beat a championship-caliber opponent this season. Kansas knocked out UNC 70-58 in the Round of 32 in Kansas City on Sunday, as the Tar Heels finished 0-8 against teams that won at least one game in the NCAA Tournament.
“I really enjoyed coaching my team,” UNC coach Roy Williams said afterwards. “I really did. We had some tough, tough losses early. They kept coming to practice every single day and tried to do what we wanted them to do.”
Williams had changed his coaching strategy, utilizing a small lineup that he said made him uncomfortable even as it spurred a six-game winning streak in February. The Tar Heels went with primarily a six-man rotation. The sense of urgency increased. And the players improved.
P.J. Hairston emerged as a dangerous scorer, averaging 18 points after entering the starting five midway though conference play — more points than anyone in the ACC besides conference player of the year Erick Green.
Always a good shooter, wing player Reggie Bullock became a strong rebounder, leading the team in eight straight games heading into the NCAA Tournament, and defender. On Sunday, Bullock guarded potential No. 1 pick Ben McLemore of Kansas, who missed all nine of his shots.
Freshman Marcus Paige looked ready to become the next great Tar Heel point guard. Never known as a natural passer, shooting guard Dexter Strickland, the team’s only senior, led the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio.
It was enough to win 25 games and to ensure a team that lost four NBA first-round picks a year ago would participate in the NCAA Tournament.
But the development couldn’t get UNC up to the level of the upper-echelon teams. The Tar Heels lost to Miami (twice), Butler and Indiana before Williams went to a four-guard lineup. It lost to Duke (twice), Miami and Kansas afterwards.
Sophomore James Michael McAdoo, a member of the preseason All-ACC team, never seemed comfortable carrying the team and capped an up-and-down season by going 5-of-19 against Kansas.
The Tar Heels were drummed by Butler in the Maui Invitational, and an 0-2 start put them in catch-up mode from the outset in conference play. Miami pulled away from UNC down the stretch in the ACC Tournament final.
The team finished third in the conference, matching the media and coaches’ preseason expectations, and ended on the fringe of the Top 25.
“It hurts not to win anything,” McAdoo said. “But we definitely made strides, and we definitely could have done a lot better in hindsight, but we were somewhat successful.”
Assuming there aren’t massive defections, the foundation is there for another title run. Williams said he would discuss the NBA with McAdoo, Bullock and Hairston but said all three could benefit from coming back to school, and it was a “big question” whether any of them would declare for the draft.
“I don’t think there’s any cut-and-dry guy that’s going to be leaving for sure,” Williams said Monday night on his radio show.
If they come back, they will join the emerging Paige, sixth man Leslie McDonald and freshman posts Brice Johnson and Joel James. The Tar Heels also will add at least three recruits — Charlotte center Kennedy Meeks, who Williams called a “Sean May look-alike” with great hands; Oxford Webb forward Isaiah Hicks, who had 34 points and 30 rebounds in the state 3-A championship game’ and another lefty point guard in Nate Britt.
The current team was good enough for one half against Kansas, taking a nine-point lead into halftime. But the Tar Heels couldn’t overcome their worst shooting performance of the season, especially against a top seed surrounded by more than 18,000 fans that drove through eight inches of snow to cheer for the Jayhawks.
“For me, we had an unbelievably young team, and they tried and tried and tried,” Williams said. “We’ve got a chance to be a sensational basketball team again.
“That doesn’t make the feeling that I have right now any better, because I feel it for this team.”