Of all the teams that were ranked in the top 10 nationally in the preseason ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, perhaps the single most mysterious and elusive group was and is the North Carolina Tar Heels. Roy Williams' team has unquestioned talent -- get ready to see many of these players in the NBA very soon -- and any program that accounts for two of the last six national championships all by itself is not to be taken lightly.
Then again all of the above was true last year. (Well, swap out "two of the last six" and replace it with "two of the last five.") And look what happened. The Heels finished the year 5-11 in the ACC. True, UNC was blindsided by the injury bug, and Williams' team did finish with a nice run to the NIT title game before falling to Dayton. Still, finishing the conference season tied with NC State and Virginia was, to say the least, an unexpected outcome.
This year Williams has added yet another outstanding recruiting class, one headlined by Harrison Barnes. The 6-8 wing out of Ames, Iowa, is currently projected to be the number one overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft on multiple mock draft sites. Looking at talent like Barnes and his fellow freshman Reggie Bullock, as well as returning stars like Tyler Zeller and John Henson, the pollsters saw more than enough reason to put the Tar Heels in the top 10.
We're still a long way from April, of course, but we do know a lot more than we did just a couple weeks ago. North Carolina stands at 2-2, having lost two consecutive close games on a neutral floor in the Puerto Rico Tip-off to Minnesota (72-67) and Vanderbilt (72-65). The two losses have dropped UNC all the way down to No. 25 in the latest ESPN/USA Today poll. Is that a fair assessment? Or was Puerto Rico just a bump in the road for a young team that will soon justify the top-10 ranking? Here's what we think we know about this team so far, keeping in mind always it's still November.
Your eyes are indeed correct: Carolina isn't scoring.
If you saw these games you certainly don't need me to tell you that the Heels struggled on offense. But allow me to add some specificity to your correct first impression. In two games in Puerto Rico, UNC scored 132 points in 149 neutral-site possessions against major-conference competition. That nets out to 0.89 points per trip. By contrast the 2009 national championship team led by Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson scored 1.16 points per possession during the ACC regular season. By the same token the average ACC team last year scored 1.01 points per trip in conference play. These are apples-and-oranges comparisons, naturally: two games in November don't carry anywhere the same weight as 16 games spanning January, February, and March. But maybe the apples and oranges can give you some sense of how unhappy Roy Williams is right about now.
In Puerto Rico, Carolina's offense experienced what could almost be termed an across-the-board meltdown. Almost. The one thing the Heels were able to do in both of their losses was get to the line. Of course "getting to the line" isn't the same thing as scoring points -- UNC shot just 63 percent on their free throws in San Juan. Meanwhile the Tar Heels were making just 43 percent of their (frequent) twos and a paltry 24 percent of their (infrequent) threes. And that was when they got a shot off at all. In the two losses Carolina gave the ball away on 25 percent of their possessions, an extremely high turnover rate. In other words there's room for improvement in just about every facet of the offense.
Harrison Barnes isn't the most efficient -- or even the most assertive -- freshman in Chapel Hill right now.
So far both of those distinctions have been earned by Reggie Bullock, and not Barnes. Among Tar Heels who see regular playing time, Bullock has been more likely to shoot while he's on the floor than any of his teammates. Though he comes in off the bench, Bullock attempts fully 31 percent of UNC's shots once he gets in the game. If he continues making those shots at the rate that he has thus far, Bullock will certainly merit more than the 16 minutes a game he's averaged thus far.
Heels share the rock
%Shots: percentage of team's FGA’s taken by a player while he's on the floor
%Shots 2FG% 3FG%
Bullock 30.6 46.7 53.3
Barnes 27.5 39.4 28.6
Zeller 25.3 50.0 N/A
Henson 23.3 43.8 N/A
Of course Harrison Barnes is still Harrison Barnes. Anyone who saw the jab-step and soft fadeaway 18-foot swish he effortlessly executed in the first half against Vanderbilt knows this kid will be heard from. Right now his numbers are wrecked by the 0-of-12 shooting he recorded against Minnesota. Still, we'd do well to remember that Bullock isn't exactly chopped liver either. At 330-plus other D-I programs he would be the big freshman star.
John Henson currently presents Roy Williams with a dilemma.
It's highly unusual -- in fact if there's a precedent I can't think of it -- for a very slightly built McDonald's All-American billed as a versatile scorer to emerge as perhaps his team's premier defender. But that is more or less what has taken place with John Henson. In four games the 6-10 sophomore has been magnificent on defense, dominating the defensive glass and blocking 13 percent of opponents' two-point attempts during his relatively low-foul minutes. (For comparison's sake that's equivalent to the block rate posted by Cole Aldrich last year.) But as great as he's been on D he's been just as bad on offense, committing no less than 12 turnovers in 163 possessions of personal playing time. And while he does haul in a lot of offensive rebounds, Henson is also fouled quite often and has made just 5-of-19 free throws. Right now Coach Williams is reaping the benefits of Henson on defense while paying a price on offense.
North Carolina is not going to continue to score just 0.89 points per possession. That's beyond the realm of probability for a roster with this much talent. But early this season the Tar Heels are experiencing many of the same problems on offense that they exhibited last year, specifically poor two-point shooting and an abundance of turnovers. There's still plenty of time to correct those flaws, but at the moment this is not the team pollsters were expecting to see when they bestowed that preseason top-10 ranking on UNC.
John draws inferences from 149 possessions about other teams on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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