Onus for UNC basketball improvement starts with veteran trio

Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com

Even before consecutive losses officially dropped North Carolina from being ranked No. 1 in the nation, the Tar Heels have only played at their best for small stretches of a time this season.

And a trio of veterans on the team put the blame squarely on their shoulders. It’s not about adjusting to Northwestern transfer Pete Nance as the new addition to the lineup. The Heels have a need for senior forward Armando Bacot, and junior guards R.J. Davis and Caleb Love to play to their potential.

“We still haven’t put a good game together at the same time,” Bacot said during the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, Ore. “So it’ll be good to see that when that happens.”

No. 18 North Carolina (5-2), which dropped 17 spots in the Associated Press Top 25 poll after losing to Iowa State and Alabama in the PKI, hopes to see it Wednesday night when the Heels face No. 10 Indiana (6-1) in the finale of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

There’s no panic in Chapel Hill. If there’s one lesson North Carolina took from a year ago after double-digit losses to Tennessee and Kentucky in non-conference play, it’s that early stumbles have no bearing on late-season success. But there is a sense of urgency because the Heels don’t want to lose games while they’re figuring it all out.

Shot selection

Both Davis and Love have regressed in terms of their shooting percentages from last season to this one. Both players shot around 36 percent from 3-point range last season, but through seven games Davis is shooting 27.8 percent from 3-point range and Love is at 24.5 percent.

The percentage of shots Love and Davis take while on the court has increased from 26 percent and 20.7 percent, respectively, last season to Love taking 31.8 percent and Davis taking 26.7 percent of the shots this season, according to Ken Pomeroy.

“Understanding the difference between a good shot and a bad shot that’s a discussion not only I have had with with RJ and Caleb, but I’ve had with the entire team,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said. “I count bad shots as as turnovers.”

Love scored a career-high 34 points in the four-overtime loss to Alabama, shooting just 13 of 36 from the field. One possession summed up his need for discernment. Carolina led by two in the third overtime and Davis had just missed a 3-pointer. Leaky Black grabbed the offensive rebound and passed it back out to Love on the perimeter. Instead of working the clock and searching for a high percentage shot to make it a two-possession game, Love took a quick shot and missed from 3.

“Some of the shot selections are because they want to make something happen,” Hubert Davis said. “And sometimes in those situations, the best thing is to create and to wait for a better shot. And that’s something that I’ve had discussions with everybody and specifically, Caleb and RJ.”

Handling the ball

The good news for North Carolina is Bacot’s ankle injury that forced him out in the second overtime of Sunday’s loss to Alabama did not stop him from playing in practice on Tuesday. Although he had 20 points and 10 rebounds against the Crimson Tide, for his third double-double of the season, Bacot said he hasn’t played to his potential so far this season.

Opponents figured out the best way to disrupt North Carolina offensively is to make Bacot uncomfortable when he touches the ball. And foes overwhelmingly have with an effective use of double teams.

In their loss to Iowa State, he had turnovers on three consecutive possessions late in the second half. Bacot totaled five in the game then set a new career high with six turnovers against Alabama. His turnover rate has gone from just 14.3 percent last season to 22.8 percent this season, according to Pomeroy.

“We just got a lot of ground to cover, I mean, I’ve sucked really the whole season,” Bacot said. “We haven’t really been making shots that we’re usually accustomed to making. We’re going to turn it around, eventually the shots will start falling and we’re going to all figure it out.”

Sharing the ball

North Carolina had an assist on 54 percent of its made baskets last season. Partly because Love and Davis have been so ball dominant, and the Heels have utilized more ball screens on offense, that percentage has dropped to 43.4 percent this season.

The ball isn’t moving as much as it should in the half-court. Hubert Davis called it, “an area that we desperately need to improve.”

“It’s been difficult, I think teams have, compared to last year, tracked us more in terms of coming off ball screens and really put an emphasis on keeping our guards out of the paint,” the coach said. “And so we’ve got to do a better job of moving the basketball and getting into the lane and drawing defenders and hitting the open guy and having more ball movement with a combination of player movement in our half-court sets.”