Monday, January 31, 2011

Turning point for UNC wasn't the switch at the point

One of the preeminent talking points of this college basketball season has been the struggles of the ACC.

As a whole, the league is down, riding the success of Duke to keep them above the likes of the Pac-10 in conference pecking order. But with the embarrassing loss handed to the Blue Devils by St. John's on Sunday afternoon, questions regarding the overall strength of the ACC grow louder and louder.

That said, Duke's disappointing performance since Kyrie Irving went down -- which I detailed in this post -- has done more than just force us to question how many ACC teams will eventually make the tournament.

It may have opened the door for their Tobacco Road rivals to make a run at the ACC title.

North Carolina didn't exactly have a dominating start to the season. They lost their first four games against notable competition, and while their win over Kentucky back in early December was nice (and aided by an ill-timed Terrence Jones nap), the Heels struggled to knock off lesser competition. After less than impressive wins against Virginia and Virginia Tech, the Heels were essentially written off nationally when Georgia Tech swept the floor with them in a 20 point beatdown.

It didn't help matters that North Carolina was coming off of a season in which they crumbled during ACC play and were relegated to the NIT.

After that Georgia Tech loss, Roy Williams finally made a change. He promoted freshman Kendall Marshall to the starting lineup while sending junior Larry Drew II to the bench. It was a move that Carolina fans had been calling for for a long time and one that has, well, been relatively unimportant. Regardless of who has started for the Heels, both Marshall and Drew essentially split time at the point. Neither has seen a dramatic improvement or drop off in the three games since the change, and down the stretch against both Clemson and Miami, Williams opted to go offense-defense, bringing in Drew every time Marshall was on the floor for a defensive possession and putting Marshall back in when UNC had the ball.

I know that this change happened to coincide with three straight UNC wins, but I don't think that the change is what has sparked this winning streak. Replacing one mediocre point guard with another slightly-better-but-still-far-from-great point guard doesn't change the course of a season.

If I had to pick a turning point in the season, it would be the last minute of UNC's win over Miami. As he has been essentially all season, Harrison Barnes was struggling with his jumpshot. He was 2-9 from the floor, he had just six points, and UNC was down 71-69 with just 1:13 left on the clock. Barnes proceeded to knock down a jumper shot to tie the game, and one possession later he hit a three with just 6.6 seconds on the clock that turned out to be the game-winner.

Now the general consensus on what has ailed Barnes, the first freshman to ever be named a preseason AP all-american, this season has been confidence more than anything. Based on his play against NC State, those two late jumpers against the Hurricanes gave Barnes that confidence. The freshman had 25 points on 10-16 shooting against the Wolfpack on Saturday.

Now I know that is just one data point, and one data point is no where near a large enough sample size to draw any kind of conclusion. But its worth talking about. That game was the first time that Barnes scored more than 20 points in his collegiate career. It was the first time he made more than seven field goals. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, his best performance as a freshman, and probably not a coincidence that it came just three days after he won a game for the Tar Heels.

UNC's issue this season, ironically, has not been on the defensive end of the floor. According to Kenpom's rankings, they are actually the seventh-best defensive team in the country. While John Henson and Tyler Zeller aren't as burly as you would like, they are both long, athletic, run the floor, and do an admirable job protecting the rim and rebounding the ball given their physical limitations.

Where the Heels struggle is on the offensive end of the floor. Its no secret why. Roy Williams likes to have his team run in transition and relies on a point guard that can create shots -- whether they are dunks for his big men or open threes for his shooters. As of now, however, UNC fans are going to need to accept the fact that they are probably going to have less-than-optimal play from their point guards this season. It happens. Drew isn't very good offensively, and as well as Marshall passes the ball, he turns the ball over way too much and may actually be a worse jump shooter than Drew.

As a result, the Heels are just the 72nd most efficient offense in the country.

If Barnes can find a rhythm -- well, build on the rhythm he found on Saturday -- on the offensive end of the floor, it makes the Heels a much more potent offensive team. Struggles or not, there is a reason that everyone that saw Barnes play in high school thought he was going to be a star at this level. How many teams would love to be able to add a potential all-american to their roster at the end of January?

Which brings me back to Duke.

The has been almost no positive buzz surrounding UNC this season, but the Heels are currently all alone in second place in the ACC, a game behind Duke in the win column.

Once again, one data point is not enough to draw any reliable conclusions, but it should serve notice that UNC had their best game of the ACC season against NC State when Barnes went off.

The Tar Heels have a back loaded ACC schedule -- they still have to play Florida State, Boston College, and Duke twice each.

But keep an eye on the Heels.

With Harrison Barnes playing like the high school all-american Harrison Barnes, UNC is capable of making a run at the ACC title.

And if they do, remember the moment that turned their season around.


heeling powers said...

"Regardless of who has started for the Heels, both Marshall and Drew essentially split time at the point. Neither has seen a dramatic improvement or drop off in the three games since the change.."

Actually, in Drew II's first game off the bench he played one of his best games of the year, while Marshall helped ignite the starters (Roy had to sub out all 5 starters in the beginning minutes of the two previous games). This change may not show dramatically in the stat lines of Marshall and Drew II, but you can see evidence of its importance when you examine how the starters and bench have played in the past 3 games. You cited Barnes' game-winning 3 against Miami as the turning-point for UNC this season. What you didn't mention was that it was Marshall who made a great play to get Barnes the ball in the first place, and Barnes simply had to hit a wide open shot since his defender fell down. Even Roy Williams said that Barnes' shot was not as important as the pass by Marshall. So really, Marshall's pass was the turning-point for UNC this year.

Like you said, Drew II and Marshall are splitting the minutes. However, the important data point is not who starts and who comes off the bench, but rather how the change has increased the value of both Marshall and Drew II to the team as a whole.

Rob Dauster said...

Very good point.