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InsideHoops NBA [Home]

Arizona, UNC Unsteady




/ Nov. 25, 2004

Anyone surprised by the early-season stumbles of North Carolina and Arizona?


I can't imagine why. If you were surprised, did you watch these teams last year? Both of them played uneven basketball in 2003-2004, culminating in double-digit loss totals for each, and a combined one whopping tournament win between the two.

Both of these teams possess a collection of offensive talent perhaps unmatched by any other team in the nation, save perhaps Wake Forest.

Both of these teams displayed, to be diplomatic, less than impressive defensive efforts last year.

And aside from Arizona losing small forward Andre Igoudalia to the NBA, both of these teams return the same rosters from last year.

Should it be all that surprising, then, that each of these teams started the year in disappointing fashion? Perhaps the real question is, why were each of these teams ranked in the top ten (UNC at No. 4 in the AP, Arizona No. 10) to start the year?

Yes, North Carolina was missing point guard Raymond Felton, suspended for the 77-66 loss to Santa Clara at the Pete Newell Challenge in Oakland. With only highly touted, yet unproven freshman Quentin Thomas left at the point for Roy Williams' squad, that's a problem against anyone.

But that doesn't explain the Broncos outrebounding the Tar Heels 36-31. A frontcourt featuring Sean May, Juwad Williams and Marvin Williams should slaughter most ACC opponents on the glass, much less Santa Clara.

Felton's absence explains part of their 36.5% shooting percentage, but a small part at best. (It certainly doesn't explain a a 14-of-24 performance from the free throw line.)

Speaking to reporters after the loss, Tar Heel coach Roy Williams took the blame.

"I've got to do a heck of a lot better job and do the little things we've talked about all along," Williams said. "We are extremely disappointed. Ticked off is what I am, but I'm ticked off at myself not at the kids."

He has reason to be disappointed, and perhaps he has reason to shoulder the blame. Yes, it was the season opener, a meaningless November game that will carry no weight (they hope) come March. And yes, Felton's importance to this team, overrated by some as he may be, can't be understated.

But it was the same old problems that did UNC in all too often last year: pourous D, a lack of aggressiveness on the glass, and too much individual offensive play. Some of the responsibility for these problems falls on Roy Williams.

But the fact is, his current team is not the kind of players he won at with Kansas. Odds are, he wouldn't have recruited an enigmatic headcase like Rashad McCants; Williams is a man who once cut off his recruitment of Jaron Rush because Rush referred to Williams as "Roy." He may or may not have recruited a guy like Sean May, a big man who has great hands and skills, but isn't great getting up and down the court, detrimental to the breakneck speed Williams likes his teams to play. He might not have wanted a defensively-challenged point guard like Felton, for that matter.

Great coaches have teams that are extensions of themselves; their program as a whole takes on the personality of the head man. Williams won at Kansas with heady, old school coach-on- the-floor types like Jacque Vaughn, Kirk Hinrich, and Nick Collison, and with athletic players who gave who constantly exuded intensity like Paul Pierce, Kenny Gregory and Drew Gooden. "Heady" and "intensity" are not words that can describe these Tar Heels often enough.

As for Arizona, they blew an early chance to show they were the team in position for a quick turnaround like many had touted. But in the 78-60 loss to Virginia, sophomore point guard Mustafa Shakur didn't look like a guy who had yet made strides from last season, committing as many turnovers as he scored points- five- and the run'n'gun Wildcats, disciples of the "live by the three, die by the three" practice, died by it against the Cavs, only connecting on 5 of 24 from deep.

"You have nightmare games like this, and we've got one nightmare out of the way, I guess," Wildcats coach Lute Olson said after the game.

Olsen and Williams both can only hope that's true. The good news? It's November. In the long run, these games will probably be long forgotten. Both North Carolina and Arizona have plenty of time to work things out and gel as a unit before conference play starts, much less postseason play.

More good news? Both of these teams still have rosters that hold up talentwise against anyone in the country. There will be plenty of nights for each of them this year when they will be utterly unstoppable.

The only logic for each team's lofty preseason ranking can be projection for improvement, which is fine. But for that to happen, these early-season hiccups will have to prove to be just that, and not an early forbearance that the ups-and- downs, defensive defeciencies, and lack of on-court cohesion are permanent problems.

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