Tuesday, January 31, 2012

No. 5 UNC at Wake Forest: 3 things to watch

CHAPEL HILL — No. 5 North Carolina travels tonight to play Wake Forest (9 p.m., ESPNU) in Winston-Salem. Three things to watch while the Tar Heels attempt to improve to 6-1 in the ACC:

North Carolina’s advantage on the inside, particularly when it comes to rebounding. No matter what metric you use, it’s clear that Wake Forest is a bad rebounding team. The Demon Deacons rank 11th in the ACC in average rebounds per game (33) and they’re also 11th in offensive rebounding percentage and defensive rebounding percentage.

So not only does Wake not give itself a lot of second-chance opportunities after misses, but the Deacs also give away plenty of second-chance opportunities to opponents. This is a bad matchup for Wake Forest in part because UNC has been such a good rebounding team. The Tar Heels lead the ACC in offensive rebounding percentage (41 percent) and are second in the league in defensive rebounding percentage.

So, yes, could be a big night, indeed, for UNC big men Tyler Zeller and John Henson, both of whom have averaged nearly 10 rebounds per game.

James Michael McAdoo’s continued progression. McAdoo arrived in college with as much hype, perhaps, as any incoming recruit in the nation. Part of that is because of his family background, but another part of that is because people thought he was just that good.

But the transition from high school star to college contributor has been a difficult one at times for McAdoo. Still, there have been signs lately that he is starting to emerge. For one, UNC coach Roy Williams said on Monday that McAdoo’s best practices have come during the past two weeks. Williams said he and McAdoo shared a conversation last weekend after McAdoo expressed some frustration.

McAdoo responded with perhaps his best overall game of the season on Sunday in the Tar Heels’ 93-81 victory against Georgia Tech. He finished with 9 points and six rebounds and was aggressive offensively as he has been this season. That’s a positive sign.

With the loss of Dexter Strickland and the promotion of Reggie Bullock into the starting lineup, the Heels need their bench to be more productive. If McAdoo can become a reliable contributor – especially on offense – that’d be a bonus for UNC down the stretch.

   Evolution of UNC’s rotation and experimentation at point guard. This isn’t likely to be a close game during the second half and if that’s the case, it should allow Williams an opportunity to continue to experiment with his rotation.

Two games after Strickland’s season-ending knee injury, some things are clearer than others. Obviously, Bullock has cemented his role as a starter. But Williams is still tinkering some with how he wants to bring guys off the bench, and how he wants to use Bullock defensively.

Williams said on Monday he hoped Bullock would develop into the kind of defensive player who’s capable of guarding an opposing team’s point guard. He’s not there yet. As for UNC’s point guard situation, freshman Stilman White has provided some valuable minutes here and there during the Heels’ past two victories.

We also saw Justin Watts, the senior guard, in at point guard for a bit near the end of the Georgia Tech game on Sunday. If the margin is wide enough in the second half, we could see that again – or, perhaps, a version of the offense without any kind of point guard.

Of course, UNC would need to be comfortably ahead to see such experimentation.

Final thought: This is a difficult matchup for Wake Forest, which doesn’t rebound effectively and doesn’t shoot at that well from the outside (Deacons’ 33.1 3-point field goal percentage ranks 11th in the ACC). Teams that have performed well against UNC this season have rebounded and shot well. The Tar Heels should win with ease.

-- Andrew Carter

Monday, January 30, 2012

Wolfpack's Howell must avoid silly fouls

N.C. State forward Richard Howell had a career-best 18 rebounds against Virginia on Saturday but fouled out for the third straight game.

Howell, a junior, had fouled out in only two career games before N.C. State's trip to Miami on Jan. 22. He fouled out, after playing only 18 minutes against the Canes, after 16 minutes against UNC last Thursday and 28 minutes on Saturday.

Howell, who lost 20 pounds in the offseason, is more fit this season and has been more aggressive on defense, pressuring the ball on the perimeter, going for and getting more steals (23 in 22 games, compared with 25 in 30 games last season). But he's also picking up more reaching fouls 25-feet from the basket, one area coach Mark Gottfried would like to see Howell eliminate.

"Those are the ones that are going to catch up to him," Gottfried said Monday on the weekly conference call. "He has to stay aggressive but at the same time, eliminate the fouls that are inconsequential."

Howell leads the Wolfpack in rebounding and ranks third in the ACC, with 9.4 per game. His scoring average, 11.7, is also up more four points per game game.

-- J.P. Giglio

Blue Devils bad on defense, or just misunderstood?

Two days after expressing disgust at Duke’s second-half effort against St. John’s, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski was more sanguine Monday in his assessments about his team.

Krzyzewski was most explicit when discussing Duke’s defense.

“Overall, we’ve had to play pretty (darn) good defense in order to have the record we have against the competition we have,” Krzyzewski said. “I don’t care what stats there are out there.”

The stats that are out there don’t paint a pretty picture.

The Blue Devils’ defense ranks 11th in the ACC in scoring defense and last in field-goal percentage defense. In Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defense rankings, which take tempo into account, Duke ranks 94th in the NCAA.

“We’re not inherently a defensive team – the mentality of these kids,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re more offensive players. But they’ve shown that they can play really good defense. We just have to get it going for longer periods of time.”

After allowing easy buckets on St. John’s first four possessions Saturday, Duke’s defense was fine for the rest of the first half and the start of the second, allowing the Blue Devils to build a 22-point lead.

Over the final 17 minutes, however, Duke seemed to lose interest, perhaps assuming the game had been won.

“Some of our worst defense has been with the leads,” Krzyzewski said. “But in order to get the leads, you have to play good defense. We’re striving for consistency.”

Part of the issue is that the Blue Devils don’t have a lock-down defender who can play multiple positions, a la Nolan Smith. Tyler Thornton comes closest, as he can match up on point guards and wing players, but there aren’t many players beyond him.

“It’s a different team than we’ve had,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve know that since China and Dubai. We’re not going to be this juggernaut defensively. We have to keep striving to get better.”

-- Jack Daly

Tar Heels' concentration waned vs. Georgia Tech

CHAPEL HILL — No. 7 North Carolina defeated Georgia Tech 93-81 at the Smith Center on Sunday night. A look back and the highlights and lowlights:

Why the Tar Heels won: North Carolina dominated the first half so much that Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said he was “pleased about everything” his team did during the first 20 minutes. The Heels excelled offensively, making 8 of their 12 3-pointers, and they dominated on the defensive end, too. UNC led 52-32 at halftime, and the game was basically over by then. Williams criticized UNC’s focus in the second half, when Georgia Tech outscored the Heels 49-41. But UNC’s second-half sluggishness didn’t much matter to the final result, which had already been long decided.

The good: The Heels shot a season-high 62.5 percent from 3-point range. UNC made 10 3’s overall – just one short of a season-high of 11, which the Heels made against Kentucky and Tennessee State. A coach would welcome a good shooting night like tonight any time, but it had be especially welcome to Williams given UNC’s recent shooting woes. The Heels had been shooting 24.6 percent from 3-point range in ACC play before Sunday night. Also good: Harrison Barnes, especially in the second half. He finished with a game-high 23 points and made all three of his 3’s. Tyler Zeller had another solid game, with 17 points – but only three rebounds – and John Henson finished with 13 points and three assists.

The bad: UNC’s focus and intensity waned in the second half, which perhaps wasn’t too surprising given how dominant the Heels were in the first half. Georgia Tech is one of the worst offensive teams in the ACC but you wouldn’t have known it based on how the Yellow Jackets played in the second half. Georgia Tech’s 49 second-half points were tied for the second-most it has scored in any half this season. The Jackets, one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the conference, also made 7 of their 10 3’s in the second half against UNC. Williams gave credit to the Jackets for playing well, but he was frustrated with UNC’s second half performance, too.

Key stat: The Tar Heels made 10 of their 16 3-pointers – a welcome sight for a team that had been struggling with its perimeter shooting.

Key stat II: UNC forced Georgia Tech into 15 turnovers. It wasn’t an overwhelming number, but the Heels took advantage of the Jackets’ miscues and turned those turnovers into 18 points. UNC outscored Georgia Tech 18-4 in points off of turnovers.

UNC player of the game: Barnes. He finished with 23 points and played one of his better halves in the second half on Sunday night. Coincidentally – or perhaps not coincidentally – Barnes switched shoes at halftime. He traded a pair of pink shoes, which UNC wore as part of a cause to raise awareness for breast cancer, for the regular shoes that he wears. He said he felt much more comfortable in his normal shoes.

Quotable: “We’re good shooters. I mean, we really are. We make a bunch of them in practice all the time. So I’ve said the whole time that I thought that, I believe that – when we started making them it would make things even a lot prettier. And again I believe I said when we started making them. I don’t think I said if.” –UNC coach Roy Williams on his team’s perimeter shooting.

-- Andrew Carter

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Young coaches retain UNC pride, but focus on new mission

Driving west down I-40 somewhere between Hillsborough and Mebane on Thursday night, it felt like I was going the wrong way. It felt like all of the college basketball fans in North Carolina were driving toward Chapel Hill to watch the UNC-N.C. State game, while I was driving to the Greensboro Coliseum to watch UNC Greensboro face Appalachian State.

I was going there to write the column that appears in Sunday's paper about two former Tar Heel players, Wes Miller and Jason Capel, who are now two of the three youngest coaches in Division I basketball.

I'm told that a raucous 21,000 fans showed up at the Smith Center that night, while the crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum was mostly friends and family, sort of like the old 8-9 game at the ACC Tournament.

Both games started at 7 p.m., and naturally I was interested in what was going on in Chapel Hill. I followed it intermittently online while watching my game.

When the two games were over, I felt I had made the right decision.

UNCG and Appalachian State went to overtime partly because of a coach's error you'll have to read the story to believe. No mention of the Tar Heels' game was ever made at the Greensboro Coliseum that night. No announcement of out-of-town scores. No score updates on the video board. Nothing.

Afterward, I was curious about how closely the two UNC alums still followed the Tar Heels.

Capel said that since becoming a head coach, he hasn't had time to follow his alma mater as closely as he once did. He waited until he boarded the team bus for the ride home to Boone to turn on his cell phone and check the UNC score because "I was pretty confident they won."

When he saw that UNC had defeated N.C. State 74-55, he teased his assistant coach, Justin Gainey, a former Wolfpack guard.

"I gave Justin a little hard time," Capel says. "He's a State guy, and I wanted to let him know that his Pack got beat."

Miller also admitted that he doesn't follow the Tar Heels as ardently as he once did, even saying that had his team not been playing opposite the UNC game, he probably would have been watching tape of an upcoming opponent instead.

But like Capel, Miller revealed his Carolina pride when I spoke to him about an hour after his Spartans had beaten Appalachian State, and I asked him if he knew the UNC score.

"No," Miller said. "Did they win?" I told him yes. "Yeah," he said, pumping his fist. "How much did they win by?" I told him it was a comfortable 19-point victory. A proud smile creased Miller's face and he said, "That's the way it should be."

- Tim Crothers

Gottfried has the Wolfpack hustling, but there's more work to do

Three Points from State's 61-60 loss to the Cavaliers on Saturday.

1) Effort vs. execution

Effort was a problem for N.C. State before coach Mark Gottfried was hired. "Was" as in past tense and Saturday's loss to Virginia is the latest proof of how far a State team, made up of essentially the same players as a year ago, has come on the effort front.

Any of Rich Howell's nine offensive rebounds, or the three jump-ball tie-ups on Virginia's end he caused, qualify as proof, but there's also the matter of State's defensive effort as a team in the second half.

Virginia's a low-scoring team, 243rd in the country, by Tony Bennett's design, but the Cavaliers scored 38 points in the first half, on some incredible shooting (15 of 25), but State responded in the second half by holding the Cavaliers to 4 of 18 and 23 points.

"If they play that hard every night, we're going to win a lot of games this year," Gottfried said. "We have won a lot of games, we're going to win a lot more. The effort, that's your takeaway from tonight's game, there's no question."

It was the kind of "phenomenal" effort, as Gottfried put it, you would expect from a team fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament (see Point 2) and it was the kind of desperate effort most of Sidney Lowe's five teams either severely lacked or did not have the wherewithal to summon at the appropriate moment.

But effort didn't lose the game on Saturday, poor shooting did. And, yes, Virginia, is one of the most disciplined defenses in the country but the Cavaliers are not particularly talented nor do they have one especially dominant defender, like UNC does in John Henson.

Virginia just makes you earn every shot, like the one on State's last possession, which was a contested 3-pointer at the buzzer that didn't hit the rim.

State finished 2 of 15 from the 3-point line, its worst performance in seven ACC games, and second-worst of the season. The Pack was 1 of 8 in a 60-58 win over Princeton, a game which it didn't have its best 3-point shooter, Scott Wood, for  36 minutes because of an ankle injury.

Wood was 2-8 on Saturday, which means the rest of the team was 0-7. It wasn't a matchup problem for Wood, either, he was mostly being defended by Sammy Zeglinski, a shorter player. UVa, with its team principles, gets some credit for Wood's poor shooting, but not all of it.

"I just didn't make shots," Wood said. "Personally, a lot of its on me. That's why I'm there. I'm not there to be Ben Wallace in the paint and block every shot. I'm there to knock down shots and I didn't do that tonight."

State's real shooting woes were where UVa couldn't defend — the foul line. In a one-point loss, that can't happen. In the first six ACC games, State hit 72.1 percent (80 of 111) of its free throws. Against UVa, it made 57.1 percent (12 of 21), compared to 69.6 percent (16 of 23) by the Hoos.

"We had a night where we had some great looks and we couldn't make a shot," Gottfried said. "We're a terrific foul-shooting team and we couldn't make a foul shot."

2) On the outside looking in

The UNC loss on Thursday was a two-by-four to the skull, but the Virginia loss was a straight shot to the solar plexus.

No one should have expected State to beat the best team in the ACC on the road on Thursday, but Saturday's game — against a team in both its conference and RPI peer group (both teams started the week in the 50s in the RPI) — was a must-win.

Now, State needs to put on its work boots to end a five-year NCAA tournament drought, a position that could have been avoided by winning some/any/all of the winnable games (Indiana, Stanford, Virginia, Vanderbilt), nevermind the the pie-in-the-sky variety wouldas and couldas against UNC or Syracuse.

Despite UVa's national ranking (No. 19 in the AP top 25), it was in the same bubble as State. The Hoos started the week at No. 53 in the RPI, compared to No. 55 for State. Bennett's team picked up a nice nonconference win over Michigan (28 in the RPI) and a decent win at Oregon (62), but it needs more meaningful ACC wins. And now it has one over State and the two teams won't play again in the regular season.

Bennett's third team is in better position to make the NCAA tournament after last night's win than it has been at any point during the season. The opposite is true for State.

Realistically, State could be 18-4, with wins over Indiana, Stanford and Virginia. Instead, the Pack is 15-7 with its best wins out of the league over Texas (70), St. Bonaventure (85) and Princeton (108) and wins in side the league over Miami (67) and Maryland (96). That's not going to get it done on Selection Sunday.

At 4-3 in the ACC, State has nine league games left but really only three that will matter to the selection committee — at Duke, No. 2 in the RPI, on Feb. 16, and at home against No. 23 Florida State (Feb. 18) and No. 13 UNC (Feb. 21).

State also has a pair of land-mine games on the road at Clemson (Feb. 25) and at Virginia Tech (March 4), but neither of those games will qualify as quality wins. Both Clemson and Virginia Tech are hard-working but extremely limited offensive teams. Their seasons will end in the NIT, State has to find one or two wins against Duke-FSU-UNC to avoid the same fate.

3) Big players play big ...

UNC is the only ACC roster with more talented players than State's Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie. Brown and Leslie are All-ACC caliber players with NBA potential. They've each had shining moments in the first 21 games and have played well with State's complementary parts (Scott Wood, C.J. Williams and Rich Howell) but in order for State to beat good teams — and Virginia qualifies as one — those two guys have to be on.

Leslie, with Henson nowhere in a 20-mile radius, was on his game against UVa. He produced a team-best 17 points, with three really good assists, in 33 minutes. It was a nice bounceback effort from Leslie, after predictably struggling with the bigger Henson and UNC on Thursday, and the latest sign of Leslie's progress and maturity as a sophomore.

But Brown, who has been fantastic for most of the season, finished with eight points, four assists and four turnovers in 37 minutes. State needs more from him, and not just on the last possession. (You have to tip your hat to UVa on that play, they just defended Brown well on it).

Brown was being defended by Jontel Evans for most of the game. Evans is a strong point guard, a football player really moonlighting in basketball, but he's only 5-11. Brown, who's a legit 6-4, needed to be more aggressive in shooting over Evans and/or posting him up on the low block. I only counted one possession where Brown posted him up, and he immediately passed it back out to the 3-point line, to Leslie of all people.

Brown finished Saturday's game without a trip to the free-throw line. Gottfried questioned the contact on the last play by Evans but officiating is not the reason Brown didn't attempt a free-throw in the entire game. His unwillingness to take the ball to the basket with a purpose is why.

Bottom line, Brown and Leslie have to be great for State to be great and only half of the equation was there on Saturday.

-- J.P. Giglio

Is this Duke squad wearing out Coach K?

DURHAM -- Based on the tenor of Mike Krzyzewski’s press conference after Duke’s uninspiring 83-76 win over St. John’s on Saturday, it seems a safe bet the Blue Devils will feel the reverberations of their lackluster second half for days to come.

While putting this game in perspective, it’s worth remembering this game could have lasting effects for the upcoming weeks. Here are three final thoughts:

1. Is this year’s Duke team wearing Coach K out?

There are a lot of words one could use to describe Krzyzewski’s mood when he talked about Saturday’s game, but the most apt one might be “fatigued.” Krzyzewski almost seemed to be at the end of his rope, saying that he’s tried all the things he can think of to improve the team’s defense and intensity to no avail.

“It’s not resonating with our team,” Krzyzewski said.

It will be interesting to hear how the coaching staff tries to correct the issues.

After a disappointing effort at Temple in early January, Duke had two intense days of practice to try to address their problems. In the midst of Saturday’s dreary second half, Krzyzewski called two timeouts to challenge his players to improve their play.

Even with those and other exhortations from the coaches, Duke hasn’t conquered its self-defeating habits.

Will Saturday’s effort finally be the catalyst? Krzyzewski will hope so. Because he was not a happy man in the game's aftermath.

“I am not pleased with today,” Krzyzewski said. “I am not pleased with today one bit. One bit.”

2. Austin Rivers had a solid game distributing the ball

Austin Rivers is a bit of a polarizing figure, especially when it comes to his ability to distribute the ball – there's little question the Duke freshman sometimes looks for his shot to the detriment of the Blue Devils’ overall offense.

Against St. John’s, Duke had Rivers play at the point in the half-court for prolonged stretches of the second half. During that time, Rivers got to the basket twice for nice driving layups. He also penetrated and kicked the ball out to Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins for wide-open 3-pointers on three other possessions. Curry and Dawkins missed, but Rivers’ decisions were still sound.

There were other times when Rivers didn’t get the ball where it needed to be – apparently, this reporter missed a time where he neglected to find a wide-open Dawkins – but overall, Rivers did good things. His five assists were the most since his second game in college and three more than any other Duke player had against St. John’s.

3. Can Quinn Cook get back to his late December/early January form?

No matter what Rivers does or does not do when he plays the point, Duke will be a stronger team if freshman Quinn Cook can recapture his strong form of three weeks ago.

Knee trouble and an illness have knocked Cook back, but at least Cook played eight minutes against St. John’s after missing Wednesday’s win over Maryland. Cook didn't do a whole lot in those eight minutes, and the last game Cook was really noticeable when he was out on the court was probably when he started against Georgia Tech on Jan. 7.

While Cook isn’t irreplaceable to this Duke team, he is the Blue Devils’ most capable point guard. If can get back up to speed, Duke will be better positioned for the stretch drive.

-- Jack Daly

Friday, January 27, 2012

N.C. State will see Zellers in its sleep

UNC's Tyler Zeller. Ethan Hyman photo.
N.C. State is 0-2 against the Zeller brothers, and North Carolina senior forward Tyler Zeller was the best player on the court Thursday night in the Tar Heels' 74-55 victory.

Zeller was dominant last night, with 21 points, 17 rebounds, a block and two steals in 27 minutes. He would have had more rebounds if Roy Williams had not been experimenting with freshman Desmond Hubert, who played 13 minutes. Zeller had as many offensive rebounds (six), as N.C. State's entire roster.

Zeller domination was not a new concept to the Wolfpack. Zeller's younger brother, Cody, a freshman at Indiana, had 19 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and a steal in the Hoosiers' 86-75 win in Raleigh on Nov. 30.

The good news for N.C. State, there aren't any other Zeller brothers in college basketball. The bad news, they have to face Tyler, and the Heels, again (Feb. 21 in Raleigh).

-- J.P. Giglio

Life without Strickland OK for Heels so far

UNC's Stilman White. Ethan Hyman photo.
The Tar Heels look like they’ll be OK without Dexter Strickland. One game isn’t exactly a large sample size, but if you’re a UNC fan you have to like how the team compensated for the loss of Strickland in Thursday's win over N.C. State. His immediate replacement, Reggie Bullock, stepped in and played well.

Outside of a few errant shots, Bullock’s transition into the starting lineup was a smooth one. He finished with 11 points, five rebounds and three assists. In a somewhat surprising move, Williams used his bench on Thursday night as much as he had in any game this season.

Five reserves played at least five minutes, and Desmond Hubert played 13 minutes. It’s concerning that P.J. Hairston continues to struggle with his shot – he was 0-for-5 from 3-point range against N.C. State – but UNC still appeared to be surprisingly deep on Thursday night.

Freshman point guard Stilman White played just five minutes, but they allowed Kendall Marshall some valuable time to rest. Marshall played 34 minutes.

-- Andrew Carter

Gottfried showed Wolfpack love after loss

N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried. Ethan Hyman photo
Mark Gottfried has been quick to point out that N.C. State has a "long way to go" even after Sunday's win at Miami gave State a 4-1 record in the ACC, and a share of first place.

This is both Gottfried's way of lowering expectations for a program that has been to the NCAA tournament five times in the past 20 years and his understanding of how to build a program.

After five years under Sidney Lowe, N.C. State needed a complete overhaul in work ethic, that includes both on game day and in the preparation for game day, particularly in the weight room and off-season.

The ACC is bad, and Gottfried understands that, so beating bad teams to get to 4-1 was never the point (or much of an accomplishment). It's how you prepare and how you play that matters, not what the other team does.

N.C. State got a 3-iron to the ear last night, instead of reminding his players that they have a "long way to go," Gottfried wisely instead chose to encourage his team.

(That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from a football coach. When ECU hired Ruffin McNeill, he said he was going to "hug 'em up and love 'em up and coach 'em up." This was Gottfried's version of the "hug 'em up.")

"I like my team," Gottfried said. "We have battled from Day One and I believe we will keep battling. Tonight's disappointing, we all agree, but we're a better basketball team than we were tonight."

No reason dwelling on the loss, as Gottfried pointed out, it was N.C. State's worst perofmance in 21 games (and UNC had a large part in that). With Virginia on deck (Saturday, 8 p.m.), State can't afford to let one loss turn into two.

-- J.P. Giglio

Tar Heels learning to play with an edge

Harrison Barnes reacts to his dunk. Ethan Hyman photo
North Carolina can be very good when it wants.

We saw the “good” Tar Heels on Thursday night, in a 74-55 victory over N.C. State. They came out focused and energized and avoided mental lapses that have plagued them at times this season. If it looked as if the Tar Heels were trying to send N.C. State a message, that’s because they were.

Said Harrison Barnes: “Well, it’s not Carolina-Duke, but we definitely wanted to go out there and show them that this is our court and this is what we do.”

Barnes often plays with a calm, stoic demeanor, but we’ve seen him let loose his emotion at times in the past couple of games. He showed some emotion after that one-handed follow dunk in the first half, and not only did that energize the crowd, but it also seemed to have the same effect on his teammates.

As Roy Williams said earlier this season, these Tar Heels aren’t a naturally intense bunch. But he also said it’s possible for a team to learn how to play with an edge as a season progresses. Maybe what we saw in the second half against Virginia Tech, and last night, was UNC learning how to play with such an edge.

-- Andrew Carter

Has gap between Heels, Pack shrunk at all?

UNC fans didn't go home disappointed Thursday. Ethan Hyman photo.
The gap between North Carolina and N.C. State longtime rivals is still significant. After the disastrous Sidney Lowe era and the promising start under first-year coach Mark Gottfried, it appeared that maybe, possibly, the Wolfpack had closed some of the distance. And yes, last night's 74-55 Tar Heels win was but one game.

Still, it showed that UNC is still far ahead. For the Tar Heels, that’s both good and bad. The good is obvious enough. The bad, though, is that competition breeds success. Years and years – and years – ago, part of the reason why North Carolina became a national power was because Everett Case’s dominant N.C. State teams in the early years of the ACC forced the Tar Heels to raise their game. And the rivalry went back and forth through the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s.

Since, of course, it has grown significantly one-sided.

No, the gap between UNC and N.C. State isn’t as wide as it was during the Les Robinson years, or when Javi Gonzalez struggled to bring the ball up the court against Ty Lawson just a few years ago. But it’s still wide and doesn’t appear to be shrinking any time soon.

-- Andrew Carter

To beat Tar Heels, Wolfpack needed 3s

Feeding C.J. Leslie and others inside proved futile for N.C. State against the interior defense of Tyler Zeller (left) and John Henson. Ethan Hyman photo

Three Points from N.C. State's 74-55 road loss to UNC on Thursday:

1) Outside in, not inside out

There's no shame in losing to the best team in the country on their home floor, but there is in the way N.C. State lost to UNC on Thursday.

The Wolfpack (15-6, 4-2 ACC) kept making the same mistakes -- at least while the game was still close in the first half -- over and over and over. And they were the same mistakes they made in last year's losses to the same UNC team.

(<soapbox>And that's why Mark Gottfried should have looked at the film of last year's Carolina games. </soapbox>).

UNC forward John Henson, who's 6-11 and has an 88-inch wingspan, didn't shrink, and his arms didn't get any shorter. And, oddly, none of N.C. State's forwards got any taller. So why go inside?

Almost every set in the first half was designed to go inside to C.J. Leslie, who finished with nine points and eight rebounds but was tormented by Henson (five blocks), or to Richard Howell, who was demoralized by Tyler Zeller (21 points, 17 rebounds).

The only way to beat UNC -- for any team other than Kentucky, which has the NBA talent to go toe-for-toe with the Tar Heels -- is to get hot from the outside and trade 3s for 2s. This a proven formula and one State did not embrace.

Scott Wood, the best 3-point shooter in the ACC, attempted one shot in the first 16 minutes of the game. C.J. Williams, State's second-best 3-point shooter, connected on his only 3-point attempt of the game, but he took only six shots in 30 minutes. Leslie (12 shots) and Howell (nine) combined for 21 shots.

Wood got off nine 3s for the game, making three, but only his first 3 -- on the first possession of the second half -- mattered. That cut UNC's lead to 37-26, and Carolina then quickly went on a 25-5 run.

By the time Kendall Marshall and Stilman White hit consecutive 3s, State could have brought back the entire 1974 lineup (in its prime) and not been able to dig out of the 31-point hole.

State needed to attack Marshall, who for all intents and purposes is Carolina's only point guard, and either A) try to get him in foul trouble or B) force him to play matador defense because he can't afford to get in foul trouble.

State's point guard Lorenzo Brown needed to drive and kick, to either Wood or Williams. Instead, it was dump and chase -- the errant blocked shots.

"We didn't screen very well, we didn't cut very well," Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said. "We were not very sharp offensively."

That's an understatement. State finished with a season-low 55 points. Even Ken Pomeroy is trying to figure out how State can score 60 points against Princeton, the slowest of the slow-pace teams, and 55 against the Tar Heels, the fastest of the fast-pace teams.

2) Staying positive

Mark Gottfried has been quick to point out that State has a "long way to go" even after Sunday's win at Miami gave State a 4-1 record in the ACC, and a share of first place.

This is both Gottfried's way of lowering expectations, for a program that has been to the NCAA tournament five times in the past 20 years, but also his understanding of how to build a program.

After five years under Sidney Lowe, State needed a complete overhaul in work ethic, and that includes both on game day and in the preparation for game day, particularly in the weight room and offseason.

The ACC is bad; Gottfried understands that; so beating bad teams to get to 4-1 was never the point (or much of an accomplishment). It's how you prepare and how you play that matters, not what the other team does.

N.C. State got a 3-iron to the ear last night. Instead of reminding his players that they have a "long way to go," Gottfried wisely chose to encourage his team.

(Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from a football coach. When ECU hired Ruffin McNeill, he said he was going to "hug 'em up and love 'em up and coach 'em up." This was Gottfried's version of the "hug 'em up.")

"I like my team," Gottfried said. "We have battled from Day One, and I believe we will keep battling. Tonight's disappointing, we all agree, but we're a better basketball team than we were tonight."

No reason dwelling on the loss, as Gottfried pointed out; it was State's worst performance in 21 games (and UNC had a large part in that). With Virginia on deck (Saturday, 8 p.m.), State can't afford to let one loss turn into two.

3) Double Zeller trouble

State's 0-2 against the Zeller brothers, and UNC senior forward Tyler Zeller was the best player on the court last night.

Zeller was dominant last night, with 21 points, 17 rebounds, a block and two steals in 27 minutes. He would have had more rebounds if Roy Williams had not been experimenting with freshman Desmond Hubert, who played 13 minutes. Zeller had as many offensive rebounds (six) as State's entire roster.

Zeller domination was not a new concept to the Wolfpack. Zeller's younger brother, Cody, a freshman at Indiana, had 19 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and a steal in the Hoosiers' 86-75 win in Raleigh on Nov. 30.

The good news for State: There aren't any other Zeller brothers in college basketball. The bad news: They have to face Tyler, and the Heels, again (Feb. 21 in Raleigh).
-- J.P. Gigli

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Could Tar Heels' backup point guard be no one?

CHAPEL HILL -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams said something interesting on Monday that you might have missed. He said the Tar Heels would experiment with a kind of offense that doesn’t necessarily require a point guard. This offense, Williams said, would be more rooted in a team passing game – which implies a lot of ball movement.

Of course, Strickland served as the backup point guard to Marshall. And without Strickland, White is really the only other point guard on the roster. And he is young and unproven to this point. So it makes sense that Williams might want to experiment with an offense that doesn’t require a point guard.

As of Tuesday afternoon, though, P.J. Hairston hadn’t yet seen what that offense would look like. He presumed the Tar Heels would practice it later on Tuesday.

“I’m looking forward to it, just to see how it works,” Hairston said.

By the way, Hairston said Strickland has been in good spirits since suffering his injury. Hairston said that in the locker room the other day, Strickland told Reggie Bullock that he’d have to learn how to be a backup point guard now that Bullock is assuming Strickland’s role as the starting shooting guard.

“I think Reggie was standing in the locker room and dribbling a basketball saying, 'I’ve got to get ready,' ” Hairston said. “It’s kind of like a joke.”

-- Andrew Carter

Tar Heels' Stilman White just wants to scrap

CHAPEL HILL -- A few other reporters and I had a chance to spend some time on Tuesday with Stilman White, the North Carolina freshman guard who’s likely to see an expanded role given that Dexter Strickland has been lost for the season with a knee injury.

I wrote a story about White that you can read right here.

Though he spent about half of his childhood growing up in North Carolina, in Wilmington, White never dreamed he’d play at a school like UNC. The Tar Heels began recruiting him after Larry Drew III abruptly left school about a year ago.

So here White is. He has played only about four minutes per game, and it’s not all that likely he plays a lot more than that. But still, his contributions could be valuable, as he’ll be asked to give starting point guard Kendall Marshall some time to rest here and there.

Said White: “I’ve got to make sure I come in and I stay on edge, and play with some edge and play hard and just kind of be a scrappy kid and just see what happens out there.”

-- Andrew Carter

Friday, January 20, 2012

UNC guard Dexter Strickland lost for season: analysis

CHAPEL HILL -- North Carolina junior guard Dexter Strickland suffered a torn ACL on Thursday night in the second half of the Tar Heels' 82-68 victory at Virginia Tech. What does the injury mean to UNC going forward?

Some thoughts and analysis:

--First the good news: There's no good time for a team to suffer a personnel loss like this - or any loss, for that matter - but UNC does have some time to figure things out. The Tar Heels don't play a game this weekend and they don't play Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, either. UNC is off until it hosts N.C. State at the Smith Center next Thursday night. Thanks a scheduling quirk, the Tar Heels literally couldn't have more time than they do right now to figure out how best to fill Strickland's void.

--Speaking of which. Strickland started all 19 of UNC's games this season. It's no secret who the options to replace him will be. Sophomore Reggie Bullock is the team's fourth-leading scorer, with 8.4 points per game. Freshman P.J. Hairston, meanwhile, has averaged 7.5 points per game. Hairston is the more potent scoring option. His 7.5 points per game have come in an average of 13.2 minutes per game. Bullock, meanwhile, is averaging 8.4 points per game in 18.8 minutes per game.

--But, of course, UNC won't miss Strickland necessarily because of the offense he provided. Strickland was averaging 7.5 points per game. But he was tied for the team lead in steals, with 25. Strickland has been UNC's best perimeter defender this season and, because of that, his replacement in the starting lineup will likely have to be a strong defender. Which gives Bullock a significant advantage over Hairston, who's still developing defensively. After the victory at Virginia Tech on Thursday night, UNC coach Roy Williams raved about Bullock's defense.

--For UNC, the worst part about losing Strickland might be this: Now the Tar Heels don't really have a backup point guard. Strickland had been filling in at the point at times for Kendall Marshall. When Marshall needed a short rest, Strickland was capable of running the offense. Without Strickland, though, who is even available to provide Marshall with the occasional rest? Freshman Stilman White has played a minute or two here and there but he hasn't been asked to produce amid pressure. White is averaging 4.3 minutes of playing time per game. Justin Watts, a senior guard, has averaged 5.6 minutes per game but he's likely to see his playing time increase.

--It's natural to wonder whether Strickland's injury will have any effect on the decision to redshirt Leslie McDonald, who suffered a knee injury of his own during the summer. Still, it appears unlikely that McDonald would be rushed back because of Strickland's injury. For one, McDonald and Strickland are different players. While McDonald would add depth to the backcourt, he wouldn't fill the defensive void left by Strickland, nor would McDonald be able to assist Marshall at point guard. Plus, with 12 regular-season games left to play, would it really be worth it for McDonald to rush back? And would McDonald even be ready to contribute if he were to come back?

--Bottom line: The loss of Strickland is a difficult blow for the Tar Heels. They now basically have a seven-man rotation, unless Watts or White takes on a larger role. And among UNC's top seven players, freshman James Michael McAdoo is still very much finding his way. The loss of Strickland hurts UNC's defense, and also makes Marshall more valuable than ever, given that he's now without a backup.

-- Andrew Carter

Was loss to Georgia Tech good for Wolfpack?

When you looked at N.C. State's schedule, specifically the Maryland-Georgia Tech-Wake Forest-Boston College stretch, you figured the Wolfpack probably should get off to a 4-0 start. But with N.C. State being N.C. State, you also figured it would find a way to drop one of the games.

True to form, N.C. State is 3-1 as it enters the "it could lose the next four" portion of its conference schedule (at Miami, at UNC, Virginia and at BC). Except, the loss — 82-71 to Georgia Tech, which lost at home to Virginia by 32 points Thursday night — might have actually been a good thing for this N.C. State team.

"The last time we were in this building, we kind of let the fans down and played really bad," Scott Wood said after Thursday's 76-62 win over Boston College. "I think that's the best way to say it."

Since the inexplicable loss to the Jackets, who have scored 50 and 38 points in their ACC games since, N.C. State has used it as motivation. The Pack throttled Wake 76-40 last Saturday and really beat BC worse than the final score indicated.

Of course, motivational lessons only go so far, and tend to look a lot more effective against teams the caliber of Wake and BC. But N.C. State took care of the business it was supposed to take care of in the past two games, and that's a good sign.

-- J.P. Giglio

Duke assistant James peps up Austin Rivers

Duke assistant coach Nate James did a nice job of motivating freshman guard Austin Rivers before Thursday's victory over Wake Forest.

After Wake Forest’s starting lineup was announced Thursday, Duke’s reserves lined up on the Cameron Indoor Stadium court and waited for the starters to be introduced.

For the first time in his Duke career, Rivers wasn’t one of the five on the bench. Rivers said afterward it was the first time he hadn’t started since third grade.

Duke assistant coach Nate James walked up behind Rivers as the starters were being announced and starting talking to the Blue Devils’ freshman. What did he say?

“I was trying to get him to understand that it’s kind of different coming off the bench,” James said. “If you don’t have the right mindset and you just sit on the bench thinking about, ‘Why am I not starting?’ then that’s going to mess you up for the entire game.

“I was telling him to observe the game and not get caught up in you. He was ready – obviously he did a great job. He showed a lot of maturity to not let not starting knock him back. He did a terrific job.”

Rivers finished with 20 points and played a team-high 32 minutes.

-- Jack Daly

'Benching' Rivers? Mike Krzyzewski begs to differ

 It’s probably prudent not to make too much of Duke's starting lineups. Austin Rivers definitely took note of the fact he wasn’t startingin Thursday's 91-73 win over Wake Forest, saying he was angry.

But Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t see what the big deal is.

Duke’s coach takes issue with the phrase “benching,” in particular.

“I don’t like the word ‘bench,’ ” Krzyzewski said. “I don’t know where that word comes from. Bench means that he sat on the bench. To me, (Rivers) scored 20 points and played 32 minutes. Everybody should be benched like that. It’s our look at trying to look at different lineups, different ways of doing this team.”

Eight different Blue Devils have started for the team this season, including seven since conference play began. Given the fact there isn’t much separation among Duke’s top eight players, it stands to reason that the starting lineup will continue to fluctuate.

Quinn Cook has struggled in recent games, and one would have to imagine there’s a chance he may go back to coming off the bench in the next week or so.

Cook only played 14 minutes against the Deacons, although Krzyzewski said that was because Cook tweaked his knee after the win over Clemson.

-- Jack Daly

Wolfpack hopeful about C.J. Williams' shoulder

N.C. State guard C.J. Williams did not practice Friday but Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried is hopeful Williams will play at Miami on Sunday.

Williams, a senior, injured his right shoulder in the second half of N.C. State's 76-62 win over Boston College on Thursday night. Williams watched the final 9 minutes and 16 seconds from the bench with his shoulder wrapped and iced.

"We're going to watch him for 24 hours and see how he responds," Gottfried said Friday. "Right now, it's doubtful, but we're hoping that he will be able to play."

Gottfried said Williams told him he felt a "pop" in his shoulder while defending on the possession before he left the court.

Williams has been one of State's most improved players in his senior season. His scoring average (12.1 points per game) has jumped almost eight points per game and he has emerged as the team's best defender and leader.

Williams has started every game and also averages 4.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game.

Gottfried has been using a seven-man rotation, with senior Alex Johnson as the only guard off the bench. Gottfried said Johnson would likely start against the Hurricanes on Sunday if Williams can't play.

Freshman wing Tyler Harris would also get more playing time, Gottfried said.

"We're a team that can't afford injuries but if he can't play, we have to respond and find another avenue," Gottfried said.

Duke faces 'men' of Florida State on Saturday

Duke faces a quick turnaround for Saturday’s significant game against Florida State.

The Seminoles have won their past two games by a combined 47 points, including the well-publicized 33-point win over North Carolina last Saturday.

Duke beat Wake Forest 91-73 Thursday night. Florida State has also been off since Tuesday’s win over Maryland.

“They're real good and they're real long," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "They're an old team. ... We’re playing men on Saturday afternoon – there’s no question about it. Hopefully, we’re men.”

-- Jack Daly

Wolfpack's Richard Howell making big strides

N.C. State junior forward Richard Howell lost 25 pounds in the offseason and found his game. Howell always played with a high basketball IQ but didn't always have the physical means, or stamina, to maximize his potential.

Howell is still undersized — he's listed at 6-8 but is really about three inches shorter — but he's made up for his lack of height with effort. He was all over the court on Thursday in the Wolfpack's 76-62 victory over Boston College, finishing with 11 points, 16 rebounds and three steals. (I actually think he was short-changed by the official scorer in the latter category as State produced a season-best 16 steals.)

"He set the tone for us with his defense," Scott Wood said.

Howell was key in the game-turning 15-0 run after BC tied the score at 21 with 8:44 left in the first half. BC coach Steve Donahue applauded Howell's efforts after the game.

"He's a big, strong kid," Donahue said. "He's a load. He's a tough kid. He's a hard matchup for anyone, particularly us."

-- J.P. Giglio

Look back: Tar Heels run past Virginia Tech

BLACKSBURG, Va. — No. 8 North Carolina defeated Virginia Tech 82-68 at Cassell Coliseum on Thursday night. A look back at the Tar Heels’ much-needed victory:

Why the Tar Heels won: UNC faced a lot of questions following its 90-57 loss at Florida State on Saturday. Questions about its toughness. Questions about its intensity. Questions about its mental makeup. Down 8 at Virginia Tech on Thursday night, with Cassell Coliseum rocking, the Tar Heels were in the same kind of place they found themselves in early in the second half at Florida State. But this time, UNC fought through. Harrison Barnes began what became a 19-0 run with a pair of free throws, the Heels increased the defensive pressure and UNC played like a team worthy of the high expectations that surrounded it at the start of the season. Was this a season-saver? I think that’d be too dramatic a description. But it was a crucial, much-needed victory. The Heels faced a gut check near the start of the second half and they responded with a confidence-building performance. UNC coach Roy Williams said the second half was “probably” the best his team had played all season.

The good: The Heels played with a fire and an energy during the second half that we’ve rarely seen this season. That must continue for this team to reach its potential. Barnes was sensational in the second half, when he scored 21 of his 27 points. John Henson added 16 points and 16 rebounds and Tyler Zeller added 14 and 11. UNC played well defensively during the second half, too. Virginia Tech guard Dorenzo Hudson scored 16 points and made four 3’s in the first half. In the second half? He had zero points in 10 minutes.
The bad: Hudson’s first half performance brought back the not-too-distant memories of The Deividas Dulkys Show. Dulkys, of course, made eight 3’s and scored a career-high 32 points against UNC on Saturday. UNC allowed Virginia Tech eight made 3’s in the first half, but Williams seemed less disappointed in his team’s defense and more impressed by the Hokies ability to make difficult shots. And, of course, the worst thing of all for UNC: Dexter Strickland suffered a right knee injury and left the game with 16:44 to play. He will undergo an MRI on Friday.

Key stat: The Tar Heels played about as well as they have this season during that decisive 19-0 run. The offense looked good during that stretch but what pleased Williams the most was how his team defended during that run. During that run, the Hokies were 0-for-8 from the field and committed two turnovers.
Key stat II: UNC dominated in two key facets of the game – second-chance points and points in the paint. Combined, the Heels outscored the Hokies 59-21 in those two statistical categories.

UNC player of the game: Barnes. No debate here. Barnes tonight showed why he was a preseason first-team All-American and a candidate to win national player of the year honors. He simply took over the game early in the second half, and did so when UNC most needed him – or somebody – to do so. In addition to the 27 points, Barnes had 3 steals and 6 rebounds.

Quotable: “That was my whole thing at halftime. I challenged them. I said don’t be giving me and woe-be’s, don’t be giving me any feel sorry for yourselves. Let’s play. I wasn’t going to feel sorry for us at all. And that’s the biggest thing I pushed at halftime but it was the kids deciding to go after it themselves in the second half.” –UNC coach Roy Williams, on what he told the team at  halftime when Virginia Tech led 39-34.

-- Andrew Carter

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Kendall Marshall took loss to FSU hardest

Kendall Marshall had a career-worst seven turnovers against Florida State last Saturday, and took the Tar Heels' 33-point loss to the Seminoles hard. Robert Willett photo
Kendall Marshall, North Carolina's sophomore point guard, is in the midst of a brilliant season, and he is compiling assists at a faster rate than any player in school history. That said, Marshall suffered through perhaps the worst game of his collegiate career on Saturday at Florida State, where he committed a career-high seven turnovers.

You saw what happened to UNC’s offense when a defense successfully frustrated Marshall. Now we’ll see how Marshall responds. Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller need to be productive for the Tar Heels to be at their best, but no player is as important to their success as Marshall.

I’m interested to see how he responds especially because he seemed to be the most disappointed out of all of his teammates in the locker room on Saturday. Marshall seemed to take it the toughest.

-- Andrew Carter

Can Virginia Tech go Dulkys on Tar Heels?

North Carolina coach Roy Williams has mostly been pleased with how his team has guarded the perimeter this season. And it seemed like UNC had made some major strides in its perimeter defense leading into the 33-point loss at Florida State.

But then the Seminoles’ senior guard Deividas Dulkys made 8 3-pointers – many of them coming on wide open shots. Sometimes a player gets hot from the outside and there’s not much a defense can do. That was part of the issue against Dulkys. The other part was that UNC allowed him open looks.

Virginia Tech’s backcourt of Dorenzo Hudson and Erick Green will pose another challenge for the Heels’ perimeter defense. Neither Hudson nor Green is necessarily known for his outside shooting. Hudson hasn’t made a 3 in the Hokies past three games, and Green has four 3’s in the Hokies’ past seven games. But keep in mind that Dulkys hadn’t been shooting all that well, either.

Green, by the way, will be a gametime decision after suffering a knee injury last week. He sat out the Hokies’ loss against Boston College last weekend.

-- Andrew Carter

Tar Heels must avoid flat start vs. Virginia Tech

CHAPEL HILL — No. 8 North Carolina plays at Virginia Tech tonight in Blacksburg, Va. (9 p.m., ESPN), and it will be important to watch how UNC starts the game. The Tar Heels admitted they were flat at the start of their most recent game, a 90-57 defeat at Florida State. The Seminoles put UNC in an early hole and the Heels never climbed their way out.

What happened in Tallahassee, Fla., was as shocking as anything we’ve seen in an ACC game in recent seasons. But if it could happen there, it could happen against in Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum, where UNC has lost two of its past three.

A fast start is a must for the Tar Heels, who need one both to build confidence and to move on, mentally, from what they endured at FSU.

--Andrew Carter

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Boston College finding stride in ACC

With 11 new players on the roster, including nine freshmen, Boston College knew it was in for a transition season.

But since a 5-9 start in nonconference play, and a 23-point loss at North Carolina, the Eagles have won two straight ACC games.

That means Boston College heads into Thursday night’s game at N.C. State with the same conference record as the Wolfpack (2-1).

“They’re a much different team now than they were early,” Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said.

Gottfried suggested “throwing out” BC’s early games as a barometer for where the team is now. Second-year Eagles coach Steve Donahue also would probably like to scrap the 2-7 start, which included a pair of losses to the lesser in-state programs of Holy Cross and Boston University.

The Eagles (7-10) have won five of eight since the slow start, though, with home league wins over Clemson and Virginia Tech.

With an 0-3 record against the Atlantic 10 and a 2-1 mark against the Atlantic Coast, the Eagles are No. 216 in this week’s Rating Percentage Index. That hasn’t helped the league’s RPI but doesn’t diminish Donahue’s reputation among his peers.

“He does a spectacular job,” Gottfried said. “They’re a young team but extremely dangerous because they have bought into everything that Steve is doing.”

Donahue won three Ivy League titles at Cornell and made the round of 16 in the 2010 NCAA tournamen before taking over for Al Skinner at BC in April 2010.

Donahue led last year’s group, carried by All-ACC guard Reggie Jackson, to nine league wins. However, he has paid the price for the program’s attrition this season. Skinner’s final two recruiting classes netted zero players currently on the roster.

In an offense dependent on the 3-point shot, Donahue has turned to a combination of freshmen wing scorers (Lonnie Jackson, Ryan Anderson and Jordan Daniels), an Oregon transfer (Ryan Humphrey) and a developing big man (Dennis Clifford).

Clifford, a 7-footer from Bridgewater, Mass., had 15 points and seven rebounds in BC’s 59-57 win over Clemson on Jan. 12 and 15 points in a 61-59 win over Virginia Tech on Jan. 14.

While improved, and on a winning streak, the young Eagles still have issues. They rank No. 318, out of 338 Division I teams, in rebounding margin (minus-5.8) and No. 303 in turnover margin (minus-2.8).

They haven’t exactly been scoring at a record clip either. Their 61.5 points-per-game average is last in the ACC, 296th nationally.

Still, their 7.4 3-pointers per game ranks third in the ACC, and guarding the 3 has been a problem for N.C. State’s defense.

-- J.P. Giglio

Eric Montross: A lesson from UNC history

Eric Montross was a senior on North Carolina's 1993 national title team, which suffered a 26-point loss at Wake Forest in late January. A couple of months later, the Tar Heels defeated Michigan in the national championship game.

“The thing that I remember about our team,” Montross said, “was that there was just an absolute commitment to do what we needed to do in order to win. And we got it handed to us that game and it was just a mindset that we were going to work hard enough to overcome that. And that we weren’t going to make similar mistakes again.”

Montross, now the analyst for the Tar Heels’ radio broadcasts, said he believes this UNC team has it in it to respond the same way after Saturday's 33-point loss to Florida State. And one of the main reasons why Montross believes this is because of the presence of Tyler Zeller.

“This is certainly a really bad game,” Montross said. “But if you look at the silver lining, Zeller played a really good game. … And he’s a senior. If Tyler had gone lifeless midway through the first half [I’d be concerned]. … But  they’ve got a guy who is absolutely committed to this as a senior.”

-- Andrew Carter

Are Tar Heels too laid back to be champs?

If you’ve followed North Carolina closely at all this season, you know that intensity has been an issue throughout. At times, the Heels seem content to go through the motions. That was the case on Saturday at Florida State, which was by far the more intense and aggressive team.

UNC never responded.

I asked Zeller yesterday if it’d be fair to say that the Tar Heels are an angry group right now. He said:
“Usually we’re very [laidback] – we’re laughing, having a good time. But nobody really said anything [after the Florida State loss]. Everybody was very quiet. And I think it was something was impactful to all of us. And hopefully we use it to drive us in the right direction.”

You’d hope. Sometimes, a team that’s not natural intense – and this team isn’t – needs a jolt to play with inspiration. Maybe what happened at FSU provides that jolt.

-- Andrew Carter

Tar Heels' exit diverts attention from 33-point loss

North Carolina players – or, really, anyone associated with the UNC basketball program – won’t soon forget the significance of “33.” Roy Williams wrote the number on a board inside the Tar Heels’ locker room to remind his players of the margin of defeat in their 90-57 loss at Florida State on Saturday.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that no one outside the team has spent too much time this week reflecting on that 33-point blowout. The topic of the week has been the final 14.2 seconds of the game, when Williams and most of his players and staff walked off the court to avoid the wild postgame celebratory scene in Tallahassee, Fla. Of course, five players – including three walk-ons – remained on the court for those final 14.2 seconds.

Williams spent nearly 12 minutes of his radio show on Monday night explaining how he could have left those players on the floor. I’ve written stories about it. It has been a popular topic on the local sports radio shows, and on Internet message boards. But you know what hasn’t been all that popular a topic? The actual blowout itself.

Here’s what Tyler Zeller had to say about walking off the court:

“That was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done in my life. Because it was to the point that I never thought I’d leave a game early because we’d lost by that much and they were going to storm the floor. It was something that I hope to never experience again.”

-- Andrew Carter

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Transcript: Roy Williams explains leaving walkons behind

North Carolina's players left the court with 14 seconds to play Saturday against Florida State because coach Roy Williams feared the Tar Heels would be trapped by the crowd. Five walkons stayed behind to run out the clock, but Williams said he didn't realize they had until he watched the tape. Robert Willett photo.
CHAPEL HILL — In case you missed Roy Williams’ radio show last night, he explained how he left five players on the court during the final 14 seconds of North Carolina’s 90-57 loss at Florida State on Saturday.
Here’s Roy:

“You know, it’s strange because after the game, I always usually say a couple of things to the team. Sometimes a little longer. One of our wins this year, I kept them in a locker room a little longer. I think the media made a statement about that because I was concerned with how we were playing.

“I had a friend of mine and he said, ‘Roy, you’ve been so frustrated. But you’ve been winning – you win by 20.’ I said, ‘I’m concerned about how we’re playing. We’re not trying to prepare to win one game in the regular season. I’m trying to get us to be the best team.’ But usually I say a couple of quick things, get them together, I say a little prayer. They don’t have to pray, they just have to put their hands and do whatever they have to do. And then we go on and I go to the press conference.

“Coach Smith always would come in and not even do that. We would just get up, put our hands together, say a little quick prayer. I’d say, Coach, I’ve got to blast them sometimes. And this was when I became head coach.

“He always said, you should wait until you see the tape and you know exactly what you’re saying and you know if you’re exactly right or wrong. Because sometimes, you know, coaches could mess it up, too. Something that they thought they saw. So I basically have adhered to that. But I say a few things.

“Well, after the game Saturday, our players got in the locker room, I walked in and I said one sentence. I said, ‘Everybody up.’ So we came together, we put our hands together. I said a little prayer. I walked out. Because I did not want to talk to my team at that point.

“We got on the bus. We went to the airport. Got on the airplane. Came home. The bus pulled up down in the ramp at the Smith Center. Everybody, what we call ‘AYOs’ – all you others – get off the bus. And I walked to the back of the bus and this time I gave them the schedule. I said, ‘We have Special Olympics tomorrow [on Sunday]. Everybody be there at 12:45.’ And then I got off the bus and still didn’t say one thing about the game. Because I still wasn’t mature enough to say anything.

“My kids had the Special Olympics things on Sunday. And we met at 12:45. I walked in the room. I sat down in front of the room. Jerod Haase, I pointed to Jerod … Jerod said, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to split up in these groups. You’re going to work with this and you’re going to work with that. And here’s the diagram, make sure you know where you know where you’re needed.’ And I said, ‘Guys – I don’t think I need to say that we need to do a great job today.’ That’s all I said. Because I still wasn’t mature enough to say anything to them.

“We did the Special Olympics clinic. At the end of the clinic, we got in there. I told everybody, I said, ‘Guys, you did a great job. I appreciate that.’ And I walked out. I still hadn’t focused my [thoughts]. So that’s 24 hours, I still hadn’t spoken to my team.

“Today [on Monday] we met. We had a film session. They did weights. We had another little film session. We went out on the court. Went back in the locker room, finished watching the tape. And I apologized, to five guys, because I did not even know until I watched the game tape that my five walk-ons stayed out there on the court. Did not know that.

“Regardless of how, in my opinion, unfair the people treated [UNC spokesman] Steve Kirschner when he tried to give them a response, that’s the exact truth. There’s nothing else. That’s the exact truth. Because if you watch the tape, Joe Holladay at first and I are talking.

“Joe said, ‘We’re going to have a problem getting off this court again. Because they’re already in the aisles.’ He said, ‘We’re going to have a problem.’ I think, understand the word ‘think’ – [referee] Jamie Luckie was in front of my bench. And I’m whispering and talking into his ear, the game’s going, I said, ‘Jamie. We’re going to have a problem getting off the court. Do you have any suggestions?’ He said, ‘I don’t know what to tell you.’

“And then all of a sudden there’s a loose ball and a dead ball and a timeout. And I start walking – you can see it on TV – I start walking and I motion for Leonard Hamilton to come. Leonard comes up there and I said, ‘Leonard – I’m worried about getting our guys off the court. Would it offend you if I were to leave? If we were to leave?’ He said, ‘No – I think that’s what you should do.’

“Which I thought was great on Leonard … I’ve known him for 100 years. He’s always sensible in things like that and when he said that, I told him, I said, ‘Leonard, I appreciate it. Please understand this is not intended to be an indictment on your security. We just need to get [out safely]. He said, ‘No – go ahead.’

“I turned to Joe Holladay and I motioned. I said, ‘Come on.’ Like that. And I took about three steps and you can see it on TV – regardless of what those people are saying to Steve Kirschner. Leonard says something, he says, ‘Roy, your players.’ And I turned around and said, ‘Come on!’ And you can see me motion on again.

“I take off and I stop and try to congratulate as many [Florida State] players as I can. I even got Luke [Loucks] and [Deividas] Dulkys mixed up … and then I found the real Dulkys at the end. I said to every player, ‘Congratulations on a great win.’ I said to the assistant coaches, ‘Please don’t be offended by this.’ And everybody said, ‘Coach, we understand.’

“I go to the locker room. And it is a long way down the side of the court. It’s all the way back there. And I get back there and I’m standing outside of our locker room, waiting for every player to get in. And I said, ‘Is that everybody?’ And they said, ‘No.’ And so I’m standing there and all of a sudden, here comes Joe Holladay and [Patrick] Crouch. And I said, ‘What took Patty so long?’He said, ‘He got caught up in the crowd.’

“And I didn’t think of what the [heck] he was talking about … I am watching the tape of the game and it’s the first time I realized that five guys, [the] Blue Steel guys stayed out there on the court. Every prospect, every walk-on I’ve ever had – I say one thing: If I ask the biggest guy or star on our team to run a sprint, you’re going to have to run a sprint. If I eat steak, you’re going to have to eat steak. Whatever happens to every scholarship player, you have to do.

“I would never leave five kids out there. And if I’m going to do that – why wouldn’t I stay out there? I saw it happened one time on TV when … I [said], ‘Why would they leave those kids out there?’ … And in the press conference, I said, ‘Please don’t make this issue a bigger issue. Because the issue should be what a great win that Florida State had.

“We had a terrible incident at UNLV. One of our female managers went down to the ground. And I said, I didn’t want that. I said, ‘Please don’t let that be a big issue. It’s not a big deal. I just appreciate the way coach Leonard Hamilton handled it …’ That’s what I said. Go and check all the tapes.

“Steve comes to see me today [on Monday] and I said, ‘Are we getting drilled because of [this]?’ Because I never read Sunday’s paper until today. And I said, ‘Are we getting drilled?’ He said, ‘You’re just getting drilled because of leaving those five guys out there.’ I said, ‘It’s funny you say that because I just apologized to my team.’ … Because I said, ‘Guys, there was miscommunication between me and Coach Holladay. I did not even know that you guys stayed out to play the game.’

“Stilman [White]comes up and says, ‘Well, Coach – I came up to you, but you were talking to Coach Hamilton. I didn’t know if you wanted me just to stand there and dribble the ball.’ And I said, ‘Stilman – I would have sacrificed you.’ I said, ‘I would not have sacrificed five of you.’ I said, ‘Please understand that.’ And he laughed and knew I was kidding and the whole thing.

“I said, ‘Guys … I apologize. There was miscommunication between Coach Holladay and myself. I would never have left you out there to play the game. What I wanted to do, needless to say we’re not going to erase a 33-point lead with 14 seconds [left]. I was trying to get my entire team off the court – to apologize to Florida State, make sure that they weren’t interpreting it the wrong way …

“So Steve Kirschner calls some people on the radio and tells them that. And basically, I’m not going to speak for Steve, they get on the radio and say it’s not true … You’re not going to call me a liar. And that’s exactly what happened. Every player on our team would tell you that.  Every coach. I even told the coaches that today is the first time I told them that I didn’t know our guys stayed out there.

“I didn’t want to talk to any coach [after the game]. I didn’t want to talk to [anybody]. I just wanted to kill some-freakin’-body. We just got beat by 33. And all of those people who want to say different things – that’s their prerogative. We have the right to tell the truth and however which way they want to color it, they can do that. But we have the right to tell the truth.

“I told Steve Kirschner the truth, he said the truth. And that’s what it is. But there’s no way in Hades I would leave five of my guys out there. I mean, my gosh, if that had been me when I was on the freshman team, coach Guthridge would have left my butt out there. I wouldn’t want that …

“And again. It’s gotten too much attention. It was a mistake. It was confusion. It was miscommunication.
“But the fact of the matter is, Florida State kicked our rear ends.”

-- Andrew Carter

Monday, January 16, 2012

Most shocking blowout loss in UNC history?

Where, exactly, does North Carolina's 33-point loss at FSU rank on the shock meter? I don’t think anyone could be that surprised that UNC lost this game. That wasn’t so shocking. But the way in which the Tar Heels lost – by being completely blown out – was.

I posed the question on Twitter yesterday (you can follow me @_andrewcarter) asking for opinions about whether this was the most the most lopsidedly shocking defeat in school history.

Of course, the Tar Heels have lost games by greater margins. But for a team with these kind of expectations surrounding it, and with a No. 3 national ranking, you could easily argue what happened on Saturday was the most surprising blowout loss in school history.

-- Andrew Carter

Roy Williams on loss to FSU: It didn't kill me

CHAPEL HILL — At one point earlier today during Roy Williams’ portion of the ACC’s weekly coaches’ teleconference, a reporter opened his question to Williams with this: “Coach, how are you doing?”

To which Williams said, “Not very good but still alive.”

What else could Williams have said two days after his Tar Heels suffered a humiliating 90-57 defeat at Florida State on Saturday? Usually, each coach begins his teleconference with an opening statement before opening it up to questions. When Williams came on the line, he said, “I’d just about as soon just open it up to questions, we were so bad on Saturday.”

Williams hasn’t seen much of his team since Saturday. The Tar Heels flew home. Didn’t practice on Sunday. And then gathered for a team meeting earlier today. So Williams hasn’t had any opportunity to gauge the reaction of his team since the loss against the Seminoles, who gave the Heels their worst beating of Williams’ nine seasons at UNC.

“We haven’t practiced yet,” Williams said. “We had a meeting this morning. As soon as I finish this call, we’ll go practice but I haven’t seen anything that I liked. There is nothing related to Saturday’s game that I liked. And we’ll have to see how we respond in practice today. But the smartest thing I’ve ever done as a coach is not say too much to them, or to not say anything to them until today.

“That’s given me 48 hours.”

So what kind of signs will Williams look to judge whether his team is responding the right way?

“See if we live,” he said.

Asked to elaborate, Williams said, “I don’t think it needs much elaboration.”

“We’ve got to have great practices,” he said. “I mean, we’re not going to go up and beat Virginia Tech just because we lost on Saturday. People say, ‘Oh, they’re going to bounce back.’ Makes no difference. We can go up there and play well and still not be successful. We’ve just got to do a heck of a lot better job.”

After the loss at Florida State, several Tar Heels players questioned their own mental toughness. Williams said his team lacked poise.

The good news, if there is any, is that Williams has coached teams in the past that have developed the kind of mental fortitude that has eluded UNC so far this season.

“We have,” Williams said. “You can go back to last year. We were struggling but down the stretch those guys got tougher and tougher and tougher and hopefully this team will be able to do the same type of thing.”

-- Andrew Carter

N.C. State blowout was largely without Leslie

Whether it was the end of the first half of the Georgia Tech game, when C.J. Leslie was on the bench with foul trouble, or the end of the Stanford loss, when Leslie was in the locker room with cramping issues, N.C. State had not responded well to playing without its top scorer.

Yet, when Saturday's game against Wake Forest started, Leslie was on the bench — a measure of discipline by Gottfried for practice-related reasons — and N.C. State was … just fine.

Leslie checked in at 16:40, with N.C. State up 6-2, had a nice assist in transition to Scott Wood for a 3 at 11:46 and played 15 relatively uneventful minutes in the first half.

His replacement in the starting lineup, forward DeShawn Painter, had five points and seven boards and helped N.C. State take a 33-17 at the half of what would become a 76-40 blowout.

Painter started the second half and Leslie played briefly before tweaking his left ankle going for a rebound at 11:49. He winced in pain, went to the bench and his day was done. With a 54-23 lead, there was no need to bring Leslie back.

Painter finished with seven points and 12 boards in 28 minutes, matching Rich Howell for the team lead in that category.

Leslie's day consisted of 17 minutes, zero points, three misses shots, four rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block — not great, but not awful by any means.

"We were able to pick it up for him and that's all we can do," C.J. Williams said after the game.
And since N.C. State hadn't been able to pick up for Leslie, who has been dominant at times this season and consistently so for more stretches than at any point in his erratic freshman season, that was a good sign for State.

The concern is how Leslie, who had a tendency to check out and disengage last season, will react going forward because State definitely needs him.

Gottfried, who was happy that Painter made the most of the opportunity, was confident Saturday wouldn't knock Leslie off the All-ACC course he has been on this season.

"Calvin has been very good this year, I expect him to be completely fine," Gottfried said.

For the record, Leslie was held scoreless in the infamous loss at Clemson last season — the one he didn't start and openly pouted during when State coughed up a 19-point lead — and came back with 14 points against UNC and 18 against Virginia Tech.

And when Leslie was suspended after the Virginia Tech game, for a coach's decision, he came back with 19 against Wake, 18 against Clemson and 18 at Maryland.

-- J.P. Giglio

UNC's Williams: Only Tyler Zeller didn't fail vs. FSU

Some notes of interest from UNC basketball coach Roy Williams’ teleconference today:

--Senior forward Tyler Zeller, Williams said, was the only UNC player who received a passing grade from the coaching staff for his performance against FSU. Zeller finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds and was “really good,” Williams said.

--Though Florida State’s Deividas Dulkys scored a career-high 32 points and made 8 3-pointers against UNC, Williams disputed the notion that the Tar Heels’ perimeter defense has been a liability this season. “We have not had this year the trouble guarding the ball on the perimeter,” Williams said. “Our defensive field goal percentage on the 3-point line is about second in the league but we had trouble guarding it Saturday. For the most part, we’ve really done a good job with that.”

--Williams was asked why his team has appeared lethargic at times this season. He said: “I have no idea. If I had an idea I would have already changed it. I don’t think we were lethargic against UNLV. It was a great crowd and their team is pretty good. And they played [well.] But we were not as active as we needed to be against Florida State.”

--Williams ended his conference call a couple of minutes early. He said,“Guys, I’ve got to go to practice. Sorry but I delayed it until I could speak to you for a few minutes. Hope everybody understands.”

-- Andrew Carter

Tar Heels drop to No. 8 in polls; Duke No. 4

Following its 90-57 loss against Florida State on Saturday, North Carolina dropped five spots from No. 3 to No. 8 in the weekly Associated Press top 25 poll, which was released on Monday afternoon.

The Tar Heels, who play at Virginia Tech on Saturday, are also No. 8 in the coaches’ poll.

Duke is the highest-rated ACC team in both polls, and the Blue Devils hold the same No. 4 ranking in each.

Virginia, which is 15th in the AP and 17th in the coaches’, is the only other ACC team to be ranked in either poll.

Florida State, by the way, received a single No. 25 vote in the AP poll. The Seminoles didn’t receive any votes in the coaches’ poll.

Duke's Austin Rivers in a rut, but still confident

Clemson was in the midst of making Duke’s life uncomfortable, having cut what was a 13-point Blue Devils lead to six points with a little less than 2 minutes remaining when Austin Rivers threw up a difficult 3-pointer with some 15 seconds left on the shot clock.

Rivers’ 3-point attempt missed badly, and the Tigers came down the court and scored on a jumper by K.J. McDaniels to close within four points.

Duke went on to win Sunday’s game 73-66, of course, but Rivers’ attempt provides insight into the freshman’s mindset.

He’s confident enough not only to take a tough, contested 3-pointer with plenty of time left on the shot clock in a close game but also believe he was going to make it.

When the shots don’t fall, on the other hand, it can make Rivers look impatient and overly optimistic in his own abilities.

In recent weeks, the majority of Rivers’ attempts haven’t found the bottom of the net. Since a 20-point effort in Duke’s win over Western Michigan, Rivers has averaged 8.6 points per game while only shooting 36.4 percent from the floor and 21.4 percent for 3-pointers.

He still leads all ACC freshmen as well as the Blue Devils in scoring (13.8 points per game), which is one of the reasons why Rivers has his self-confidence.

Yet he seems to be in a bit of a rut.

“I just think he’s going through what a freshman goes through,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “There’s adjustments to everything. Overall, he’s done it really well.

“There’s adjustments to more physicality, speed, height, experience. There’s not one adjustment – all freshmen have to go through it. He’s done it fairly well to average about 14 points per game with the schedule we’ve had. He has to continue to make those adjustments.”

After Duke’s win over Western Michigan on Dec. 30, Krzyzewski praised the Blue Devils’ depth before stressing that it’s “better” to have some separation among the players in the regular rotation.

At the time, Rivers seemed as likely a candidate as anyone on the team to provide such separation.

That hasn’t happened over the last two-plus weeks, and Krzyzewski seems to have adjusted his assessment of the benefits of having a go-to player or two for this year’s bunch.

“I think you have to be flexible in the group that you have,” Krzyzewski said. “The group we have is 15-2 and overall is doing a really good job without just having one or two guys like (Kyle) Singler and Nolan Smith lead you.

“We have to be flexible in how we bring a team like this along like we have been and will continue to be unless we see an emergence of consistent excellence by a few guys or one guy.”

-- Jack Daly

History points to problems for Tar Heels

From the department of doesn’t-really-mean-anything-but-still-kind-of-interesting: North Carolina’s 33-point loss at Florida State was the worst loss of the Williams era. You knew that. But did you know this: Three out of UNC’s past four national title teams didn’t suffer losses by 33 points combined in their title seasons.

The 2008-09 championship team lost four games by a combined 16 points. The ’04-05 team lost four games by a combined 28 points. The ’81-82 team lost two games by a combined 21 points.

For those looking for something positive to think about, there’s this: UNC won the national championship in 1993 not too long after the Tar Heels’ 26-point loss at Wake Forest in late January of that season. That was a good Wake team, though, with Randolph Childress and Rodney Rogers. The Demon Deacons went 21-9 and reached the Sweet 16.

Are the Seminoles equally as good? We’ll see.

-- Andrew Carter

Wolfpack's Leslie will start vs. Boston College

N.C. State will go "back to normal" for Thursday's game against Boston College, Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said. That means a return to the starting lineup for sophomore forward C.J. Leslie.

Gottfried benched Leslie for disciplinary reasons, stemming from a practice incident last week, in Saturday's 76-40 win at Wake Forest.

"I told him that was for one game and we'll go back to normal," Gottfried said Monday on the weekly ACC teleconference.

Leslie, who's second on the Pack in scoring with 12.8 points per game, came off the bench Saturday and was scoreless in 17 minutes. He tweaked his left ankle in the second half of the blowout but is expected to make a full recovery by Boston College's trip the RBC Center on Thursday.

Leslie has started 10 of 15 games this season. He missed the first three games because of an NCAA suspension related to taking improper benefits from a former Wolfpack football player in the spring of 2011.

He's second on the team in rebounding (6.4 per game) and first in blocks (2.0).

Junior DeShawn Painter started for Leslie on Saturday and finished with 12 rebounds and seven points in 28 minutes. Gottfried said it was a good confidence boost for Painter, who had a total of nine points and nine rebounds in N.C. State's first two ACC games.

"We need DeShawn, we need Calvin," Gottfried said. "We need everybody."

Leslie was suspended one game last season by former coach Sidney Lowe after the Virginia Tech game on Feb. 2 and came back with some of his best scoring efforts of the season. Gottfried believes Leslie will respond positively to the benching.

"My anticipation is he's going to come back and be very good," Gottfried said. "I don't anticipate anything other than that."

-- J.P. Giglio

Wolfpack's C.J. Williams accepts the challenge

C.J. Williams spent his first three seasons at N.C. State as a beacon of hard work and hustle on teams otherwise lacking in both categories. As a senior he has emerged as both a leader and reliable scorer, to complement his yeoman effort.

So if anyone was going to be receptive to being called out by the coach, it was Williams, who was challenged by Mark Gottfried to step up his defense after giving up big scoring efforts to Terrell Stoglin and Glen Rice in N.C. State's first two ACC games.

"Being a senior, you have to be able to take that," Williams said. "Coach is definitely on me a little more than everybody but I accept that challenge."

Williams did so, and then some, in holding Wake Forest's Travis McKie, the second-leading scorer in the ACC, to two points in Saturday's ridiculously easy-looking 76-40 win.

Williams, Lorenzo Brown and Scott Wood all combined to defend McKie and C.J. Harris and hold the Deacons to 2 of 20 from 3-point range.

Defending the 3-point line has been one of N.C. State's biggest problems this season. The Pack is one of the worst teams in the country in that category, and Georgia Tech burned them from beyond the arc in Wednesday's loss in Raleigh, but State contested shots and closed out shooters on Saturday better than it has at any other point during the season.

-- J.P. Giglio

Bobby Lutz key to Wolfpack blowout of Wake

Assistant coach Bobby Lutz handles the advanced opponent scouting for the Wolfpack and Lutz knew Wake Forest's offense better than any of its players on Saturday.

Lutz, the former Charlotte 49ers head coach, was calling out plays and pointing to spots on the floor — often the exact spot where the Wake Forest player was going.

That helped the Wolfpack to a 76-40 win over the Deacons that might not have been that close.

"Our staff normally does a good job with their scouting, it seemed to me today we really had them pegged," N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried said.

As good as N.C. State's preparation and effort was on Saturday, Wake Forest was a hot mess. Dominique Wilkins thinks Nikita Mescheriakov needs to pass more. Mescheriakov took five shots in the first half (about four too many) with four misses from 3, and was taking shots (often while being defended and early in the shot clock) with reckless abandon.

Point guard Tony Chennault has made a big difference in Wake's offense this season, moving C.J. Harris off the ball and putting Harris in a better position to score, but Chennault somehow convinced himself he was Chris Paul on Saturday and took one ill-advised, forced shot after another.

Meanwhile, McKie and Harris — the second and third leading scorers in the entire ACC — just kind looked wistfully at the ball.

That's why Wake coach Jeff Bzdelik, who runs a modified version of the Princeton offense (which he learned at Air Force) said after the game:

"I don't know why we did what we did offensively. I don't know what to say."
Here's what to say: You have to give your best players the ball and put them in position to score. If other players are unwilling to give your best players the ball, get them off the court.

Done and done.

There is no circumstance where Chennault and Mescheriakov should take as many shots, or more in Chennault's case, than McKie.

Gottfried provided the unintentional comedy highlight of the day when he said after the game: "We dealt with their ball screens, they set a lot of them."

I wouldn't characterize any set Wake ran Saturday as screen heavy. It was often four guys spread behind the 3-point line, even 7-foot Ty Walker, while one guy dribbled until the end of the shot clock and waited for a ball screen that either never materialized or was set with the intensity of a third-grader.

-- J.P. Giglio

Tar Heels admit they weren't tough enough vs. FSU

North Carolina is seeking a dose of mental toughness in the wake of the Tar Heels’ 90-57 defeat against Florida State over on Saturday.

Even in some of its most dominant victories this season, the Tar Heels have, at times, lacked poise and intensity. Roy Williams hasn’t questioned his team’s effort, and after the debacle at Florida State he said, “I don’t think our guys laid down.” But, right before he said that, he said this: “It definitely comes back to poise, there’s no question about that.”

The defeat against the Seminoles represented the Tar Heels’ third consecutive on the road. And they appeared rattled in certain moments of all three defeats – in the second half at UNLV on Nov. 26, in the final moments at Kentucky on Dec. 3, and now throughout at FSU on Saturday. Asked what the loss taught him, the junior guard Dexter Strickland said, “That we still have areas where we need to grow. Having that toughness to where we have to stay focused when we’re down like that.”

Said Harrison Barnes: “[We] weren’t mentally focused enough to get it done.”

And John Henson: “We didn’t come ready to play today.”

UNC has as much, if not more, physical talent than any team in the country. But the Heels challenge now is to become stronger mentally. Much stronger, after what happened on Saturday in Tallahassee, Fla.

There's more on this topic here.

-- Andrew Carter

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Clemson-Duke: Three things to watch

It’s game day for the No. 8 Blue Devils (14-2, 2-0), who travel to Clemson tonight to face the Tigers (9-7, 1-1) at 6 p.m. Duke has won 25 of its last 27 games against Clemson and 10 of its last 11 games at Littlejohn Coliseum.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind once the game tips:

1. Does Austin Rivers have a big game?

The Duke freshman is in the midst of a so-so stretch, having averaged 9.8 points per game in the Blue Devils’ last four contests while only hitting 37.8 percent of his shots and 25 percent of his 3-pointers.

Duke has a number of scoring threats on the perimeter, but Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski indicated a couple of weeks ago that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if one or two of them distinguished themselves as Duke’s go-to guy.
There are risks with Rivers adopting that mindset – he’s prone to making questionable decisions on when to drive to the hoop or when to shoot from the perimeter – but he’s clearly gifted on the offensive end. His first big conference game figures to come sooner rather than later.

2. Can Andre Dawkins build on Thursday’s effort against Virginia?

Before the Virginia game, Dawkins’ spot in Duke’s rotation was open to some debate. The junior guard had been hurt by the development of point guard Quinn Cook, which, together with the strong play of Tyler Thornton, had pushed Seth Curry to the shooting guard spot and had taken minutes away from Dawkins.
But with Curry seeing more time at the point against the Cavaliers, Dawkins was on the floor for 29 minutes, the most playing time he’s seen in nearly a month.

“I’m just out there playing – regardless of what the lineup is, if I’m out there on the court, I’m trying to play as hard as I can on both ends of the court,” Dawkins said.

He finished with 10 points, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers.

Just as impressively, Mike Krzyzewski singled Dawkins out in the post-game press conference, saying that it might have been the best defensive effort of Dawkins’ career.

It wasn’t an overpowering effort from Dawkins, but, for the first time in a while, it was something to use as a building block.

3. Remember the Seminoles

With Florida State’s 33-point rout of North Carolina on Saturday reverberating around the conference, it is worth keeping in mind that Clemson beat Florida State by 20 points last weekend.

Duke, then, will not want to misplace its intensity on the way to Littlejohn Coliseum. The Tar Heels’ loss provided a perfect example of the dangers of sleepwalking through a conference game on the road.
If that’s not vivid enough, Duke can think back to its 74-47 loss at Clemson when Miles Plumlee was a freshman.

-- Jack Daly