UNC in the clutch: Changing ‘toughness’ rep means winning close

When college basketball fans, who mostly only watch their own team, criticize toughness and effort, I tend to tune out. These are 19-22 year-olds who have incredible ability and potential but are still plagued by the same inconsistencies in life that you and I struggled with at the same age. But when a coach who makes his living watching and analyzing thousands of hours of high school and college basketball makes the same observation, I’ll give the notion a second thought.

Seth Davis, college basketball writer for Sports Illustrated and analyst for CBS Sports’ hoops coverage, reached to out one head coach and one assistant coach in the major conferences last month, granted them anonymity and asked for “brutal honesty.” Anonymity allows for coaches to let it fly a little more than usual, but even taking that into account, the review of North Carolina was particularly damning.

“They don’t play hard all the time,” one of Seth Davis’ anonymous ACC coaches said of the Tar Heels. “I don’t know if it’s that they’re soft or they just know they’re really good and just trying to get through the regular season.”

A few different statistical categories are often considered “hustle stats” — rebounds, steals, blocks, opponents shooting percentage could all indicate either a heightened or lessened level of effort — but there is no “play hard” number to test this anonymous coach’s suggestion that the Tar Heels are cruising through the regular season.

So how about performance in close games? In every level of basketball from pick-up at the local gym to the NBA Playoffs, no possessions are tougher than the final ones of a close game. Your heart beat rises as the game moves a little faster and any lapse in concentration has the chance to result in a mistake that can cost your team a victory.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams said his team “tried awfully hard” in the crushing one-point home loss to Duke last month, but admitted there were some mental, concentration-related issues that hurt their chances to win.

That kind of lapse in concentration may contribute to a troubling trend for this particular group. While North Carolina was named the preseason No. 1 team in the country for bringing everyone back, Roy Williams was discussing the need to improve on finishing games. More than a handful of North Carolina’s losses last year came after holding a lead in the second half and on the season, the 2015 team was 4-5 in the regular season in games decided by eight points or less, which includes two narrow losses to rival Duke.

So far, North Carolina has not really improved on this trend of performance in close games. Their average scoring margin is up from a year ago and ranks among the 15 best in the country now (+12.5), but the record in games decided by eight points or less is still below .500 and only two of their five close wins have been against tournament teams (Syracuse, Maryland).

Carolina in the Clutch: Regular season games decided by 8 points or less
Year Record Losses
2015 4-5 Butler, Iowa, Notre Dame, Duke, Duke
2016 5-6 Northern Iowa, Texas, Louisville, Notre Dame, Duke, Virginia

“Just kind of like last year when we let a lot of games slip away, it’s all about toughness at the end of a game,” junior forward Isaiah Hicks said on The David Glenn Show when asked about the Duke loss. “It just showed we really have to play until the end. If you are going to say ‘the team that wanted it more won’… that can’t happen for our dreams to come true.”

Hicks welcomed criticism of the Tar Heels’ toughness, but only to reiterate that a lack of it in big moments is unacceptable for a team that has been in these situations too many times.

“If there are games where we don’t show toughness, that’s a problem,” Hicks said. “We’ve been here. Most of this team [are veterans]. We shouldn’t have those problems. It’s a problem we shouldn’t have, period.”

Because of the success in 2005 and 2009, the current Final Four drought (which is the second-longest of Williams’ career and third-longest in UNC history since 1957) has worn on fans in a particularly unique way. The 2016 Tar Heels are very much a team capable of ending that drought, arguably the most capable team since Kendall Marshall’s injury drastically changed the postseason outlook for the 2012 team. But based on the recent trends against good teams in close games, those lapses in concentration and effort have to be absent for the Tar Heels to reach their full potential.

Blowout wins and blowout losses are easily forgettable in a 30-40 game season. There’s something going on in the psyche of a fan that allows you to check out early, happy or sad, and limit your emotional investment.

But close games, particularly against good teams, can send otherwise stable North Carolinians (no matter your rooting interests) into states of hysteria. The wins resonate for years and the losses even longer as a collective “where were you when” for the entire fan base. UNC fans remember Marvin Williams’ put-back in 2005 as clearly as Austin Rivers’ 3-pointer over Tyler Zeller in 2012, and a 25-point win against Miami did very little to heal the wounds of the Duke loss.

Marcus Paige hopes to beat Duke for only the second time in his career this weekend. (USATSI)

That’s what might have made Monday’s 75-70 win against Syracuse so particularly encouraging heading into this weekend’s rematch against Duke. The Orange had cut UNC’s lead to 1 with 2:23 to play, and given the stagnant offense from the Tar Heels at the time there was a “here we go again” feeling. After all, in close regular season games against good ACC teams, we’ve seen North Carolina wilt more than it has flourished.

But on the very next play, Marcus Paige, who did miss 8 of his 10 shot attempts, dropped 1 of his 8 dimes to Isaiah Hicks for a key bucket to extend the lead to three. On the next trip down, Brice Johnson pulled down Joel Berry’s missed 3-pointer and put it back to push the lead to five. In the moment where it looked like Syracuse could steal a win in Chapel Hill, North Carolina came through in the clutch. Powell Latimer, of the News & Record, was sharp to point out it was the seniors getting it done on senior night.

So now the Tar Heels have a little bit of juice heading into the Duke game, playing for the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament and at least a share the ACC regular-season championship, the first title (regular season or conference tournament) for any player on the current roster. They’ve also got last year’s postseason experience — which featured close wins against Louisville, Virginia and Harvard — to lean on once we get into tournament play.

So if the game gets tight on Saturday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium, keep your eye on Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige. They’ve only beaten Duke once — at home in 2013 — and lost four times by eight points or less. If they can deliver another trend-reversing win like they did against Syracuse, it would go a long way in changing the perception that this Tar Heels team isn’t tough enough to win on the big stage.

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