NCAA Basketball Handicapping: North Carolina in Big Trouble?
by Trevor Whenham - 01/15/2009
This is not how this was supposed to turn out. The Tar Heels, regarded by virtually everyone as the most talented team in the country, and sporting a rare sight in a returning senior National Player of the Year, were supposed to roll through the ACC virtually untouched. Only Duke was supposed to pose a threat to them. Yet here they are just two games into the ACC schedule, and already they have two losses. And neither one is to Duke. So, what does it all mean? Is this not the team we thought they were? Do we need a new favorite to cut down the nets in Detroit? Is it time to panic? Here's a look at six relevant factors:
The conference - The ACC is having a very good year so far. Better than expected. They have three teams in the Top 5 of the AP Poll, and four in the Top 10. An 0-2 start in a conference that strong obviously isn't a good thing. But it's not a disaster, either. They still have more than enough chances to turn it around, and their two biggest threats - Wake Forest and Duke - still have to play each other twice. At worst, each team will get a loss from those matchups, and UNC will have closed the gaps. There's another issue, too - North Carolina doesn't necessarily need to win the ACC. They could still finish second and possibly get a No. 1 seed, especially if they win the ACC Tournament. Going through this strong conference is also going to have the Tar Heels well prepared and tested for the tournament. You could easily argue that the team lost to Boston College in large part because they had barely been tested all year, and they had grown lackadaisical.
The Wake Forest loss - The Tar Heels absolutely should have won this game, but that doesn't make the result an unqualified disaster. They lost by three points to an undefeated team playing at home, and they were in it right until the end. That's particularly significant because the Tar Heels did not play a very good game at all. They looked distracted and unfocused, and clearly weren't all on the same page. It's not like the Demon Deacons stood toe-to-toe with a heavyweight and outpunched him. They faced a good team going through struggles and were good enough to take advantage of them. It happens - Duke lost at Michigan this year, for example. The test will be whether, and how quickly, North Carolina can slip out of their current funk.
Marcus Ginyard - Hansbrough, Lawson and Ellington get the attention on this team, but Ginyard is almost as valuable as any of them. He plays very impressive defense, and he is clearly a respected leader on the team. It's not a coincidence, then, that the team's struggles have corresponded with the absence of Ginyard. He suffered a stress fracture in October. He returned for a few games, but had to miss the first two ACC games again. The lack of focus and the distracted play probably has a lot to do with that absence. He's expected back soon, and that improves the fortunes of the team significantly going forward.
Ebbs and flows - It can be easy to be down on this team after their last two games. You have to remember, though, that this is the same team that went to Detroit and beat Michigan State by 35. They are at a low point now, but by the middle of March people could easily have forgotten that January ever happened. The Tar Heels can lose three of four games in the season and still potentially get a top seed. If anything, these losses come at a good time, because the Heels have a long time to erase the memory of them from the minds of bettors. I don't want it to sound like I am blindly loyal to the Tar Heels - I respect them, but I don't particularly like them. I just think that it is crucial for bettors to remember what team we are talking about and treat them with the respect and patience that their talent warrants. Every team in the country will go through a rough patch at some point this season. Before we treat this slump as more than that we should first make sure that it actually is.
The style of opposing play - Now this is a bit more of a concern. Boston College and Wake Forest have used, in large part, the same basic gameplan. It is also the same basic gameplan that Kansas used to beat the Tar Heels in the tournament last year. It requires some talent, a hot shooting hand (or more), and aggressiveness. Both teams discovered that if you attack North Carolina early and often, they don't settle down well. They aren't comfortable when they can't set the tone themselves. North Carolina has time to work on that, but they certainly need to. The next time they play a top opponent - Clemson in a week - will be a good test of their progress on this front.
Roy Williams - Are you willing to be pessimistic about a Roy Williams led, talent-laden team? I'm sure not.