I have to sympathize with Roy Williams right now. I really do. In the past year, he and his program have largely stayed out of the academic scandals that plagued the football program and cost Athletic Director Dick Baddour one of the most prestigious college jobs in the country. If that wasn't enough, he lost four of his top scorers, Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall to the NBA. Perhaps more importantly, those four combined for most of the minutes on the team and 25 rebounds a game. Kendall Marshall alone averaged a ridiculous ten assists per game in 2011-2012. How do you replace that while maintaining the same level of play? The answer is simple: you don't. At least not in November and December. I don't care if you've got McDonald's All-Americans waiting in the wings.
So it's no surprise that this year's version of the Heels have underwhelmed when it's counted. They were largely dominated by Butler and Indiana. Williams has given minutes to a lot of players, trying to find the right combination for success. But in games that have truly mattered, they haven't been able to put it together. While they have three players shooting at a high percentage from deep on the season (Reggie Bullock, PJ Hairston, and Leslie McDonald), UNC has gone 8-30 from three vs Butler and Indiana. In those games they've also been badly outrebounded (-9 and -10, respectively) and had more turnovers than assists.
Is the sky falling in Chapel Hill? Of course not. This team has a ton of talent and will start to gel soon enough. Marcus Paige has already begun to pleasantly surprise as a more than competent ball-handler and secondary scorer in his freshman year. Once they work out the kinks, start communicating on the floor better, and play consistent high-level defense, they'll start beating good teams.
There's one problem with that, however. The selection committee places a huge emphasis on non-conference wins. And North Carolina is quickly running out of time to get anything of value out of the non-con schedule. They scheduled nicely. Made a trip to Maui, played at Indiana and perennial mid-major power Long Beach State. They also have an upcoming trip to Austin to play the Longhorns. But only a couple of those teams have turned out to be any good: Butler and the Hoosiers. They were crushed in those games. Texas lost to Chaminade (!) and has been unimpressive this year. Mississippi State looks plain awful and is probably headed for a 150+ RPI. Point being, even if they get hot after ACC play starts and go 11-5 or 12-4 (and I think they will), the mess they've gotten themselves into early will most assuredly hurt them come March.
Unless they beat UNLV at home on December 29th.
The Runnin Rebels are no joke this year. Even with Mike Moser injured, they were able to go into Berkeley and beat a good Cal team. As mentioned in my previous article on December 7th, the Mountain West is silly good this year, and The Rebels are going to rack up opportunities for top 50 RPI wins (and they'll get them). Which means that UNC is going to have one massive shot to impress the selection committee with their out of conference resume. I promise you, this game will make a huge difference in their seed ceiling. A win and they still have a nice shot at a 3 or 4 seed come March. A loss against the Rebs and they'll probably max out at a 6. Again, this is assuming they take over in ACC play as expected. If they don't, the UNLV game could be the difference between the 'Heels dancing in March and accepting an NIT bid. And for those who think it's impossible that a huge name like the Heels don't make the dance, one need only look back three years to 2009-2010. It doesn't matter what the name on the front of the jersey is, you need to prove yourself with wins both in and out of conference if you want to hear your name called on Selection Sunday.
Growing up outside of Richmond, Virginia in the heart of ACC Country, college hoops was set into the fabric of Rusty Tutton at an early age. A 2008 graduate of VCU, he lives in the Fan District of Richmond and works full-time in higher education.