First of all, let’s not overreact. It is indeed a charmed life we live as Carolina men’s basketball fans if we’re frantically searching for answers after a loss to the nation’s no. 4 team in November. We’re simply not used to seeing the Tar Heels lose.
In hindsight, this was a terrible matchup for Carolina. Michigan State has the size to collapse a defense and the perimeter players to make defenses pay for doing so. On the other end, the Tar Heels just don’t yet trust their young post players enough —and those players aren’t yet confident enough themselves— to force the issue in the paint against good players.
Michigan State dominated on the defensive end, getting into passing lanes, contesting shots and getting their hands on the ball in the half-court and getting back to take away transition momentum. There were very few easy shots for Carolina - and the ones that were were taken by guys you don’t want taking them.
Much may be made of the young freshmen, Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley and Brandon Huffman, playing poorly. And they did. But we knew they were going to be tested in games like this. You don’t get to be a North Carolina, you don’t play in big games without being tested by good players. Those young men grew up a lot tonight facing a guy like Nick Ward, for example.
The problem as I see it is that the players that this Tar Heel team needs to play well simply didn’t. And it wasn’t just that Joel Berry or Luke Maye or Theo Pinson or Kenny Williams didn’t play well; the Tar Heels could get past a subpar game by one of those guys. But none of them were their best selves on Sunday night. The Tar Heels can’t afford that against anybody, really, let alone a Michigan State.
Further, this good passing team over-passed way too often on Sunday. No one seemed to want the ball. Simply, they played scared. The Tar Heels made poor decisions on their rare fast-break opportunities, leading to open opportunities on the other end. At least twice in the first half, a lay-up miss led to a made three for Michigan State. That’s two five-point swings, crucial in a game like ths.
And I haven’t even mentioned the missed free throws, something that has too often plagued recent Tar Heel teams. You have to take advantage of opportunities to score with the clock stopped.
Still, as we wrote about early in the week when the Tar Heels faced Stanford, Roy Williams is not afraid of testing his team early in the season. Few programs of Carolina’s caliber can boast the non-conference schedule of the Tar Heels. And while Roy Williams hates losing, nothing teaches quite as well as a tough loss. And this was that.
We were riding high after hanging a banner, after a really good performance against Arkansas and an impressive showing against Stanford. But Sunday’s game exposed exactly what the Tar Heels lost in the off-season: a lengthy shooter to draw a defense away from the basket and experience and strength in the post. Maybe Cameron Johnson brings the first when he’s healthy again. Maybe the young bigs (and Maye) will eventually be the second.
This kind of off-game won’t happen often, not this perfect storm that led to Sunday’s result. It’s the kick in the pants that perhaps this team needed.
It’s a bad loss, by the score. But it’s only one on the record. Carolina returns home to face Michigan on Wednesday. But don’t think of Sunday as a bad loss. Think of it as a recalibration.