The offseason speculation, fueled in part by Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston during their summer interviews, suggested that North Carolina would have to rely more heavily on its perimeter scoring than any other Tar Heel team since Williams arrived in Chapel Hill nearly 10 years ago.
There was a basis for that belief. UNC returned just one known post option – sophomore James Michael McAdoo – and his resume primarily consisted of a three-week stretch of games in March. On the perimeter, however, North Carolina returned Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock, McDonald and Hairston, while welcoming freshman Marcus Paige into the mix.
It took all of two regular season games to debunk that myth. On Sunday, McAdoo led all scorers with 19 points and fellow post players Joel James (11) and Brice Johnson (12) also scored double-digits. Bullock (16) was the lone perimeter player to score more than six points.
“At the beginning of the season, I felt like we were going to have to score a lot from the perimeter,” Bullock told reporters following Sunday’s 80-56 win over Florida Atlantic. “But [McAdoo] has been playing like one of the best power forwards in the nation, so we knew we could get easy buckets down low….
"I feel like it’s going to come from both areas. From down low, with Joel and Mac and Brice coming off the bench and giving us a spark. For me, P.J. and Leslie, we’ve just got to get more reps up, stay after practice and be able to knock those shots down.”
McAdoo’s style of play, however, creates a challenge. He’s not a back-to-the-basket type play in the sense that Tyler Hansbrough and Tyler Zeller were during their tenures at UNC. On Sunday, McAdoo took 19 shots, getting fouled on two, and yet only three of those attempts were traditional post entires and back-to-the-basket moves.
Here’s how McAdoo’s shot chart breaks down for Sunday’s game: six short-to-mid-range jumpers, four face-up moves starting outside the lane, four feeds received open at the rim, three back-to-the basket plays and two putbacks.
That’s not a negative, just a notable difference. The troubles arrive in the form of a glaring inability to finish in the paint.
North Carolina grabbed 24 offensive rebounds against the Owls, yet only netted 10 points on the offensive glass. The Tar Heels have gotten plenty of opportunities down low due to their size and athleticism advantage, but have struggled to capitalize, scoring 94 points on 84 field goal attempts in the paint so far this season.
“Our offense is still predicated on getting easy baskets and working from the inside out,” Paige said. “Using our shooters is definitely going to be an important part of this year and getting guys open looks will help open up our offense, both in driving lanes and for the young big guys to have more room to operate.”
It doesn’t help that UNC is shooting 25.9 percent (7-of-27) from 3-point territory, although the offense loosened up and was more effective after Hairston and McDonald pried the cover off the rim in the second half on Sunday.
North Carolina shot 54.5 percent in the second half after a 34.2 percent effort in the opening 20 minutes. UNC is shooting 45.1 percent on the season.
Strickland has been effective thus far in pushing the tempo and helping to jumpstart UNC’s transition game, which benefits from great effort on the defensive end.
“That’s been a really important emphasis of our team is to be able to get guys like Reggie and P.J. and Leslie good looks on the perimeter,” Paige said. “Part of that comes in our transition, too. There was a time when Dex stopped in a 3-on-2 and he skipped it over to Reggie for a wide-open three. Stuff like that is going to be big for us.”
Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference that he compared the practice plans from Nov. 8 this year and Nov. 8 last year and noted a “night and day” difference. But that’s expected when one team returns five starters and the other returns just one.
“It’s been a little bit different than last year and how high-powered we were,” McAdoo said. “I think we’re all still getting used to having Marcus as our point guard, along with Luke and Dexter in there. We’re really just trying to come together as a team on the court and off the court and just trying to fine tune and learn each other’s tendencies.”
Williams offered some insight into how his offense needs to improve moving forward.
“[We’ve] got to be more consistent moving with the ball and moving without the ball,” Williams said. “And moving without the ball doesn’t just mean running around. It means going to set a screen and widening out, it means cut going away from the basketball.”
Williams indicated that the top item of emphasis during the five-game road trip that starts on Friday is to get “smoother” offensively. Until then, North Carolina will have to continue to fight and scrap to put points on the board.
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