How Did North Carolina Fall Into Bubble Trouble?

North Carolina has made nine straight NCAA Tournaments, tied for the fifth longest active streak in Division I men’s college basketball. In that stretch, the Tar Heels have won at least one NCAA Tournament game each year. Only Gonzaga (11 years) and Kansas (14 years) have longer active streaks with a win in the Big Dance.

In those nine years, North Carolina has a national championship, two Final Fours, four Elite Eights, and six Sweet Sixteens. Few programs reach the heights of the recent Heels teams.

This year is well on track to be the kind of disaster that brings the end of an era.

North Carolina began the season 5-0, including a season opening win over Notre Dame. Since then, the Heels have won only three of their last ten games, including a narrow three point home win over Yale. Four of those losses came at home in Chapel Hill. North Carolina hadn’t lost four home games in a season since 2015 and just did so in about a month.

Dark days have come for the boys in light blue. The time to worry about making the NCAA Tournament is past here. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi not only excluded the Tar Heels from his most recent bracket, you won’t find North Carolina in his “First Four Out” or “Next Four Out” either. He’s not alone. Just 5 of the 64 entries on bracketology aggregation tool Bracket Matrix have the Heels in the Big Dance.

The Tar Heels don’t just need to tread water. Roy Williams needs to turn things around and he needs to do so in a hurry.

How did this happen?

Sitting where we do now, it seems fairly clear how things have gone wrong for Carolina. Roy Williams brought back just one of his six leaders in minutes from last season’s team, with the other five graduating or leaving early to the NBA. When he recruited Nassir Little and Coby White, he may have planned on having one or both for more than just one season, yet both performed well enough to be drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft as freshman.

Still, the group that returned to campus, in conjunction with the group of freshmen recruited to join them, was strong enough to be ranked in the preseason top ten of the AP Poll, peaking at No. 5 in the November 18 poll. Cole Anthony was a top tier recruit, fully capable of competing for All-American honors and jumping to the NBA as a top five draft choice.

On paper, there was talent. And there still is talent on the team. The trouble has been keeping that talent on the court. The injury bug has hit Carolina like a runaway freight train.

Cole Anthony required arthroscopic knee surgery to heal a partially torn meniscus and has missed nine of Carolina’s 15 games. Brandon Robinson, a returning contributor and current starter, missed four games with a sprained ankle. Freshman Anthony Harris tore his ACL and will miss the season. Backup guard Andrew Platek missed two games with an ankle injury. Returning junior Sterling Manley will miss this season after knee surgery.

Keeping track of North Carolina’s injuries, let alone dealing with them, has become a laborious task. Losing Anthony for four to six weeks as he rehabs from surgery was a brutal blow for this team. Roy Williams has always loved to run his offense fast and furious with a point guard at the controls to make plays. Anthony filled that role in the season’s early going. In UNC’s first five games, Anthony averaged 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. Perhaps most notably, he was attempting 18 field goals and 7 free throws per contest. His usage rate ranks 30th in the nation this season.

Losing him clearly was going to have an out sized affect. Williams said as much recently, stating, “You lose your best player and your best player is also your point guard, you lose a lot more things other than just a player.”

After losing to Georgia Tech, Williams expanded on that issue, calling the Heels, without Anthony, “the least gifted team I’ve ever coached in the time that I’ve been back here.”

That’s been apparent in the six games Carolina has played without Anthony. Offensively, the Tar Heels struggle to make plays for one another and create very little movement offensively. Without an elite playmaker like Anthony, everything is a bit more of an uphill climb.

They’ve been willing to make that climb for the most part. In fact, by the numbers, the Carolina offense has not been at fault. They are scoring more points per game without Anthony, with comparable shooting percentages, free throw rate, and turnover rate. In fact, it’s clear that any issues in Carolina’s offense predate Anthony’s injury. On the season, they rank in the bottom 100 nationally in 2-point percentage and 3-point percentage. Carolina is shooting just 30 percent from long range and shooting threes at the 324th most frequent rate in college basketball, leaving them to battle for every point from the foul line or inside the arc.

It’s made for a slog of an offense that doesn’t score easily. The always-fast-paced Tar Heels (36th in tempo this season) have scored over 80 points just twice this season, and lost both of those games. Against the two top ten ranked defenses they’ve faced (Ohio State and Virginia), the Heels failed to even break the 50-point barrier in either game. They scored just 0.75 and 0.76 points per possession in those games, dismally below the 1-point per possession national average this year.

Despite all of those issues, North Carolina’s defense has been just as much of an issue.

The Heels have struggled to get stops defensively all year, with a few key issues to blame. First, Carolina ranks 322nd nationally in forcing turnovers, with opponents coughing up the ball on just 16.7 percent of possessions.

Without a turnover to spoil possessions, opposing teams have had the time to work the ball for a good look at the rim. Carolina ranks 28th in the nation in percentage of points allowed from 3-point land, with 37.3 percent of the points they’ve allowed coming from long range. That has happened despite Carolina’s opponents shooting just 33.9 percent from outside the arc. That means teams facing Carolina might not be shooting the lights out, but they are getting a ton of looks from long range. The Heels haven’t been quick enough or played as a unit all year long.

The teams that haven’t shot well against North Carolina have missed their opportunities. The five clubs who failed to make 30 percent of their 3-point attempts versus Carolina all lost. If Yale, UCLA, or Notre Dame had been able to hit shots, North Carolina’s down season would be even more of a disaster.

No matter which end of the court is the bigger issue, they both need to be corrected.

Just two Roy Williams teams have finished outside the top 50 nationally in offensive efficiency, per KenPom, in the last 20 years. No team he has coached in the last two decades has finished outside the top 50 nationally in defensive efficiency.

The Heels currently rank 80th in offensive efficiency and 71st in defensive efficiency. He may be right that this is his least gifted team in Chapel Hill and if something doesn’t change soon, they could go down as one of his worst teams as well.

Is It Too Late to Fix Things and Make the Tournament?

It’s early January, so there is certainly the opportunity to turn things around. The ACC schedule gives plenty of chances to collect quality wins and impress the selection committee. Any team that can go .500 or better in a conference as strong as this ACC will warrant at least a heavy look at an at-large bid. On top of their ACC slate, Carolina does have neutral court wins over Oregon and Alabama on its resume. Most importantly, the selection committee famously always factors injuries into their decisions. If Anthony can return soon and lead the Heels to some huge wins, there will be a movement to ignore the games he missed and focus on Carolina’s record with its best player in the lineup.

While there might be a path to the Big Dance, the reality of North Carolina reaching that path is less likely. With or without Anthony, this team has no offensive identity. Even if Anthony returns next week, on the aggressive and optimistic side of his projected time out of the lineup, it will take time for him to re-acclimate. Road games at Pitt, Virginia Tech, and NC State this month make that easier said than done.

If they are unable to right the ship, this Carolina team will go down in history as one of the program’s most disappointing. Missing the tournament does not happen to America’s most rock-solid-royal-blue bloods. This would be just the fourth NCAA Tournament without the Tar Heels since 1975 if they can’t earn their way in by March. It wouldn’t feel the same without Roy Williams and some Carolina blue uniforms in our lives at that time of year.

******

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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