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Tar Heels living and dying on the boards

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UNC NOTEBOOK

When the season began, North Carolina had many question marks after replacing so many key pieces from last year’s national championship team, and after a 12-2 start, there was hope those answers were just around the corner.

But after a 5-3 start in conference play and an embarrassing 80-69 road loss Monday to a Virginia Tech team that limped into the contest two games below .500 in ACC play, questions still abound for the Tar Heels.

One of the primary questions, however, was not among the preseason concerns, and it’s one that has Roy Williams “a little disappointed … a little upset, a little ticked off.” The source of that disappointment isn’t that Carolina is being outclassed but rather that Williams feels he is “spending too much time coaching energy level,” with Carolina’s inconsistency directly tied to effort and energy.

Although the sports cliché that the victor “just wanted it more” is rarely true, the numbers in this case do seem to correspond at least somewhat with what one would expect if inconsistent effort were indeed a chief problem.

PASSING THE BOARDS

For one, despite often putting a smaller lineup on the floor, Carolina’s rebounding numbers have correlated strongly with success and failure. Specifically, the Tar Heels are unbeaten when rebounding at least 28.6 percent of their misses and winless when not reaching that mark. Carolina not only did not reach that mark against Virginia Tech (10 OREB on 63 misses, 15.9 percent), they were outrebounded overall by the Hokies (36-35) and outscored on second-chance points.

A second stat suggestive of effort or energy as a key component of the Heels’ woes comes specifically from Monday’s game: Carolina attempted 31 3-pointers and only five free throws on the evening, suggesting the Heels simply did not attack the basket enough. (It should be noted that Carolina also attempted 31 3s against Clemson, though pairing that with 24 free-throw attempts.) Tired (or lethargic) players generally tend to attack the basket less, with the consequence that even the good outside shots produced by a collapsing defense tend to disappear.

Some of the effort issues may be tied to fatigue and an overall lack of dependable depth at this point of the season, leading an exasperated Williams to observe, “I’m not even doing a good job of sprinting them enough to get their butts in shape.”

One can safely assume this will be amended with a vengeance over the next week or so.

CANARY IN THE FATIGUE COAL MINE

The numbers of junior wing Kenny Williams certainly suggest fatigue is a factor, as the junior wing continues to be significantly more effective in the first half than the second. After the loss to the Hokies, Williams is shooting a robust 48.4 percent (31-64) from 3-point range in the first half of games so far this season, but that percentage drops to 21.2 percent (7-33) in the second half. In ACC play, Williams is 10-30 in the first half (33 percent), but that second-half percentage drops to an icy 11.7 percent (2-17).

Given that Williams has been on the floor for nearly 75 percent of the season so far (including bench-emptying blowouts against cupcakes) it’s fair to assume that Williams — who also shoulders a significant defensive role — is simply wearing down over the course of games and seems to be wearing down a bit over the season as a whole.

But the disparity is unlikely to be solely the result of Williams’ fatigue — an expected symptom of fatigue on a team-wide basis is less penetration and consequent inside-out action producing better looks from 3-point range.

FRESHMEN NEED TO DEVELOP

The first and most obvious cure for what has ailed Carolina is for the young freshmen to grow up and provide stronger play when called upon. Jalek Felton in particular could offer another solid ball-handler and playmaker down the stretch? His ability to create with the basketball would be a huge asset for a team that has struggled in that area at times, but Roy Williams noted after the Clemson game that unreliable defense and turnovers are the two things keeping Felton from getting more minutes.

In ACC play, lineups with multiple freshmen have been a significant liability, meaning the veterans have simply had to play more minutes. But that is unsustainable, as Roy Williams understands — likely the reason he had four freshmen on the floor at once during the second half against Virginia Tech. To have success down the stretch, those young players will need to be dependable, even if it costs the Heels a bit at present while trying to give the young players enough time for that light to start flickering.

In any case, Carolina needs to find good answers over the next couple weeks, before the season hits its home stretch and the postseason approaches.

ANOTHER FOOTBALL COMMITMENT

Offensive lineman Joshua Ezedu committed to North Carolina on Friday over UConn and Virginia, among others. The 6-foot-4 1/2, 295-pounder out of Lawrenceville, Georgia, is rated as a three-star prospect by the 247Sports Composite and has very good mobility and foot quickness for his size, projecting as a tackle in Carolina’s offense.

SOS LOOKING UP

Don’t let anyone tell you Carolina’s hot start to the season was primarily due a soft non-conference schedule. As of this week, four of UNC’s non-conference foes are ranked in the AP Top 25: Michigan State, Ohio State, Tennessee and Michigan.

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