November 22, 2010
If surging Minnesota was one revelation from this past weekend's Puerto Rico Tip-off, then struggling North Carolina was the other.
The Tar Heels sustained frustrating back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt on Friday and Sunday, looking all too similar to the team that lost 17 games last season and wound up in the NIT.
Two pre-Thanksgiving losses certainly aren't going to derail North Carolina's season, yet Tar Heels supporters are understandably uneasy given last season's historic struggles. Here's a look at North Carolina's four biggest issues so far this season and an assessment of how concerned the Tar Heels should be with each of them:
1. Point Guard Play: Neither an offseason of hard work from incumbent starter Larry Drew III nor the arrival of highly touted freshman Kendall Marshall seems to have solved North Carolina's oft-discussed struggles at this position.
Drew went 3 for 10 from the field during the Tar Heels' two losses and had more turnovers (five) than assists (four). Marshall was practically invisible in 17 minutes off the bench against Vanderbilt, but it's looking more and more like North Carolina's best option is to give him more playing time and let him learn on the fly.
Concern Level: High
2. Harrison Barnes: One of the reasons North Carolina was expected to bounce back so quickly was the arrival of Barnes, the Class of 2010's consensus No. 1 recruit and the first freshman ever named to the AP's preseason All-American team. Thus far, Barnes hasn't lived up to the hype, going an awful 0 for 12 from the field against Minnesota and following that up with a quiet 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting against Vanderbilt.
It's important to note that Barnes was guarded by a pair of elite perimeter defenders in Minnesota's Rodney Williams and Vanderbilt's Jeffery Taylor, yet it's still disconcerting how he settled for jump shots instead of getting to the rim. Nonethless, Barnes is the likely No. 1 pick in next year's NBA draft for a reason, so chances are that sooner or later he'll figure it out.
Concern Level: Low
3. A lack of outside shooting: Considering North Carolina shot 32.8 percent from behind the arc last season and then dismissed top 3-point shooter Will Graves, it's not a huge surprise the Tar Heels are struggling from the perimeter again. They were 4 for 18 against Minnesota and 3 for 11 against Vanderbilt from 3-point range, though in their defense they did hit 12 of 17 against Hofstra in their Puerto Rico opener.
The bright spot has been freshman Reggie Bullock, who came off the bench to hit 4-of-8 3-pointers against Vanderbilt and Minnesota and is shooting 53.3 percent from behind the arc on the season. Perhaps as he and Marshall get more comfortable and start to receive additional playing time, it will give the Tar Heels more options to stretch the defense.
Concern Level: Elevated
4. John Henson's struggles: For all the work Henson allegedly put in this summer getting stronger and working on his post-up game, the results have been very spotty thus far. Henson had a near triple-double against Lipscomb and pulled down double-digit rebounds against Hofstra and Minnesota, but his performance against Vanderbilt was so bad that coach Roy Williams yanked him after only 16 minutes.
In the Vanderbilt game, Henson committed six turnovers, got dominated physically by the stronger Commodores and missed 4-of-6 free throws to push his season-long percentage to 26.3 percent. It was just one game, yet it's not an especially good omen for a Tar Heels frontcourt that is talented but lacks either depth or a physical enforcer.
Concern Level: Guarded