Roy Williams left the mainland early last week and traveled to Maui looking for answers. His North Carolina Tar Heels are in transition following the departures of four NBA first-round draft choices (Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller). That roster was able to attack you in transition at warp speed, knock down shots, pound you on the block and attack the offensive glass.
This season's edition of the Tar Heels? They are a work in progress.
Here are the three big questions facing UNC coming out of the Maui Invitational (and their loss to the Butler Bulldogs) and heading into Tuesday night's showdown with the Indiana Hoosiers in the ACC-Big Ten challenge, plus a look at what I think North Carolina's potential is this season.
1. Who is the Tar Heels' go-to player?
In the eight years I coached against the Heels, they always had a dynamic point guard, a dominating frontcourt player and a knock-down wing scorer. Whether it was Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson or Marshall at the point, Brandan Wright, Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough, Ed Davis or Zeller up front, or Rashad McCants, Danny Green or Wayne Ellington on the wing, the Heels always had a go-to player on the floor at all times that they could play through.
Because of that, it's hard to imagine a UNC team being held to 18 points in a half as they were versus the Bulldogs. Against Butler, there was no threat in transition, no post player to go to in the halfcourt and no wing player to go get his own shot. James Michael McAdoo did not respond to the physical defense of the Bulldogs, Reggie Bullock disappeared in the first half and freshman point Marcus Paige could not get the Carolina transition game going.
2. Will this team show a commitment to getting stops?
In the past eight seasons, UNC has always had the ability to outscore its opponent. The Heels didn't mind getting into a high-possession game, because they had more weapons and ways to score than their opponents. The Tar Heels picked their spots defensively and had the ability to kick it up a notch when needed, but too often they preferred to just outscore people. They were not a disciplined, committed defensive team on every possession. They would melt on screens and their famed scramble rarely forced turnovers. Their length at the front of the rim many times covered up for players overrunning passing lanes or getting beat off the bounce.
This season's UNC team must be committed on the defensive end. The Heels lack a player who can erase defensive mistakes as Henson could for them the past two seasons, and it doesn't look as though they are going to have the offensive firepower to simply outscore teams.
North Carolina's ball pressure and ball-screen defense were exploited in the first half against Butler. The Heels went under on Rotnei Clark and their hedge defenders did not show high or hard enough, and they struggled finishing possessions with a defensive rebound in the first half. Coach Williams made a great adjustment moving Dexter Strickland onto Clark in the second half, putting greater pressure on the ball at the point of the attack. This energized the Tar Heels' defense and gave them a chance down the stretch.
But for this UNC team to be successful, its effort and competitive spirit on the defensive end is going to have to be consistent. You can't pick and choose when you're ready to play, especially when you have as many question marks as the Heels do to start the season.
3. Do the Heels have enough up front?
When I think of Carolina basketball over the past several seasons, I think of Zeller or Hansbrough streaking down the court for early post-ups, or catching the ball on the block and scoring or getting fouled.
This season's Tar Heels have, at best, developing low-post scorers. Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson don't carve out space, don't demand the ball on the block, are inexperienced and limited offensively. McAdoo is more comfortable facing up or catching the ball outside the lane than he is operating in the paint. Williams is trying to cut him into the block to get tight touches, but McAdoo must show he can play through contact. Butler was physical with him, stood him up in transition and bumped him off his cuts in the halfcourt, and it took McAdoo out of the game. If he is going to be the next great Tar Heel, he must be tougher and more assertive.
Williams' team is both young and inexperienced, with several players assuming new roles. It will take time for them to put it all together, but the ingredients are there. Strickland has a chance to be a lockdown defender. P.J. Hairston and Bullock should provide Carolina with a pair of wing scorers who can stretch the defense. Paige will improve his decision-making. The frontcourt still has a ways to go offensively, and I expect Williams to shorten his rotation there, but James has the size and strength to be a capable low-post defender and rebounder, and Johnson is long and athletic enough to develop into a rim protector much in the same way that Henson was. Empowering these two players will give them the confidence needed to play through their mistakes.
And last but most important, McAdoo has tremendous potential. He is long, athletic and gifted. He must embrace the responsibility of being the best player in the program.
The Butler loss could and should be a wake-up call and learning experience for the Heels. They now realize that their defensive intensity should not be predicated on their offense, but rather that their defense should create their offense. Their effort in the second half showed a prideful group of players who did not quit, which is a positive sign.
Ultimately, the success of this season's UNC team will be tied to the development of Paige and the Tar Heels' frontcourt players. If they come along, I think this is a team that by season's end will have a chance to get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. If that happens, Williams and his staff would have done an outstanding job developing this team.