UNC Basketball: Why Tar Heels' Problems in Poor ACC Start Won't Go Away

Todd SalemContributor IIIJanuary 23, 2014

SYRACUSE, NY - JANUARY 11:  Nate Britt #0 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reaches in unsuccessfully as Trevor Cooney #10 of the Syracuse Orange dribbles past in the second half on January 11, 2014 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. Syracuse defeats North Carolina 57-45.  (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

When a talented team hits a rough patch during the season, it is usually beneficial to take a deeper look into what is going wrong and what is likely to change. In North Carolina's case, the problems that have befallen it are likely not going anywhere. This is a deeply flawed team that may see its poor ACC start continue throughout the season.

UNC is 1-4 in conference play so far, good for 13th place in the new, expanded ACC. In those five contests, there have been some alarming trends forming, the most simple of which regard three-pointers and free throws.

These have been a concern of Roy Williams and Carolina faithful all season. Against Virginia on Jan. 20, commentator Jeff Van Gundy finally put it into words as an outside observer. Van Gundy is an NBA analyst and admittedly had not seen a ton of college basketball this season.

Yet one thing was clear to him. Paraphrasing from the telecast, Van Gundy explained how it would be awfully hard for the Tar Heels to play consistently well for any stretch. The lack of ability to make threes or free throws means UNC would struggle to come back from deficits and struggle to put teams away.

Essentially, if the only shots a team can make are twos in the paint where they don't get fouled, it is going to be a long year.

In that UVA game, Carolina was 4-of-15 from distance and 5-of-12 from the foul line. In the prior game, against Boston College, UNC was once again poor from both locations: 4-of-12 from three and 20-of-30 from the foul line.

Shooting 67 percent on 30 attempts, a bad day from the line for most teams, would actually be a yearly improvement for Carolina. (More than 220 schools in the country currently shoot at least 68 percent from the line).

That BC contest represented the Heels' lone ACC win. In the other losses, it was more of the same from the foul line and three-point line.

Doing the math, North Carolina has accumulated the following numbers during its five ACC games: 17-of-75 from three (22.6 percent) and 47-of-82 from the line (57.3 percent). It doesn't take a coach or scout to know those figures are atrocious.

The unfortunate part is that those numbers are also not new. Carolina has been less than adequate from both spots all year long, and that is not changing.

CHAPEL HILL, NC - DECEMBER 31:  Craig Ponder #00 of the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks defends a drive by Leslie McDonald #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Dean Smith Center on December 31, 2013 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. No
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Fans hoped the return of Leslie McDonald would spark Carolina from distance. Instead, McDonald has struggled to shoot from anywhere. His splits of 34/54/31 percent (field goals/free throws/threes) make him one of the worst shooters in the conference. But this is not rust. McDonald is just not a very good shooter—he never has been.

Counting this season, in his time at Chapel Hill, the senior has never shot better than 38.6 percent from the field in a season. He has also never topped 38.1 percent from three. While the free-throw shooting in 2013-14 seems somewhat like an aberration (although his attempts are way up), the rest is not.

People got swayed into thinking McDonald could cover for the loss of P.J. Hairston, and that is simply not true. He is not that type of weapon.

Compounded with the slowdown from Marcus Paige, Carolina has no one to keep defenses honest. Even if Paige picks it back up, which seems bleak at the moment, defenses still have a very easy time protecting against just one shooter on the floor.

But Carolina's problems don't just exist on the offensive end. The Heels also fail to defend the most important part of the floor in college basketball: the three-point line.

CHAPEL HILL, NC - DECEMBER 21:  Tom Droney #23 of the Davidson Wildcats battles for a loose ball with Marcus Paige #5 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during a game at the Dean Smith Center on December 21, 2013 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolin
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

During the aforementioned UVA telecast, analyst Jay Bilas said that he thought North Carolina showed up to play the game but did not show up to fight. He felt the effort was lacking for the Tar Heels. That may have been the case for parts of the game but, on the whole, the team's defense has been good this season with hustle plays like steals and blocks and bad at quality rotations and movement.

Whether because of poor guard rotations, bad hedging from big men on screens or just poor form, Carolina is giving up a large number of threes this season. It ranks a mediocre 61st in the country in opponents' three-point field-goal percentage, having allowed 110 made threes thus far. This is a huge step back from where the team is ranked in other defensive categories.

Perhaps surprising to many observers, UNC excels on the defensive end. Its field-goal percentage defense is in the top 25 nationally, at 38.8 percent. A poor figure against opposing three-point shooters may not be corrected simply by putting forth more effort. It may just be how this team is configured.

For a team flooded with front-court depth, UNC will defend the rim well all year with the big bodies it can put forth. However, the guard rotation is very thin. Unless Williams decides to slide J.P. Tokoto outside more (by far the team's best defensive regular under 6'9"), giving up the three may just be what this team has to live with.

In the team's last two games, UNC has been outscored from three by a combined 33 points. This is, of course, due to its personal struggle to hit from the outside, but UVA and BC did make 19 three pointers.

This was reminiscent of Carolina's losses early on to non-conference foes, where it gave up a combined 26 threes in three games.

As conference play continues, the weaknesses of this team will not go away. There may be spurts where the Heels are able to fend off their biggest problems, but it will be hard to come by wins playing like this.

Rather than try to determine what can be done to get UNC back to the team that beat some of the most highly regarded teams in the country early in the year, the more interesting question may be figuring out how it actually won those games in the first place.