Butler led UNC by 17 at halftime. Texas led by 13. N.C. State by 19. And in South Florida on Saturday, the Hurricanes entered halftime with a 44-27 advantage.
The problems in each of those games started early. UNC trailed Butler 10-2 at the first media timeout. At that same point in the other three games, the Tar Heels were losing 14-6 (Texas), 15-7 (N.C. State) and 9-2 (Miami).
The troubles aren’t isolated to games against quality competition. UNC fell behind Boston College 8-2 on Jan. 29 and Virginia Tech 12-0 last Saturday. The Tar Heels have trailed by six points or more in the opening 10 minutes in four of their last five games.
When asked about how to correct the slow starts following his team’s 87-61 loss to Miami, UNC head coach Roy Williams replied: “If I knew that, I would have already solved it. That’s the bottom line. When you’re coaching 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds, who knows?”
Williams pointed to the value of homecourt advantage – ACC teams are 42-17 at home – and how experience plays a role in adjusting to that challenge.
“The more experienced your team is sometimes they can handle that stuff a little better and just shrug and say, ‘That’s alright, you can enjoy this but we’re going to come get you,’” Williams said. “Right now our team is not at that level.”
He makes a valid point. North Carolina is now 5-6 away from the Smith Center, including all four of the aforementioned losses.
There were plenty of opinions available in the Tar Heel locker room following the loss.
“I just feel like as a team we’ve just got to basically punch somebody in the mouth first before they actually punch us in the mouth,” junior Reggie Bullock said. “I think we make our best runs when we’re behind instead of starting out on a run… We can’t do that when we’re playing against great teams.”
Dexter Strickland, the lone scholarship senior on the roster, didn’t even attempt an explanation.
“I have absolutely no clue,” Strickland said. “I’m trying to figure that out just like you are. I have no clue.”
Freshman point guard Marcus Paige, however, elected to dissect his team’s poor offensive play early in games.
“You have to start with your offensive possessions,” Paige said. “We haven’t done a good job of starting the game with good offensive possessions,” Paige said. “We start with a quick shot over a hand or a rushed shot or turnover. When you do that, it just lets the other team have patience on offense. They don’t have to work on the defensive end and they get great shots.”
North Carolina trailed 11-2 despite forcing five Miami turnovers in the opening six minutes. In UNC’s initial possession after the first media timeout, poor spacing resulted in a Strickland fallaway jumper from 18 feet.
“We need to do a better job of moving the ball and changing the side of the floor a couple of times, running a set and trying to get a good shot,” Paige said. “That does a lot to slow momentum down when you make a team work for 30 seconds on defense and we haven’t done that.”
North Carolina missed seven of its first eight shots on Saturday, including its first four 3-point attempts, as Miami built its first double-digit lead at 13-2.
Strickland’s ill-advised jumper was just one of many offensive miscues for UNC. Bullock and P.J. Hairston collided during a inbounds play, J.P. Tokoto was dribbling the ball while the shot clock buzzer sounds and James Michael McAdoo had two dunks blocked, including one with his team down 9-2.
UNC’s starting lineup has received criticism for its role in the slow starts and for good reason – the quintet averaged 12.3 points on 25 percent shooting (18-of-72) in the four aforementioned losses.
Saturday’s loss marked the second time in five games that UNC’s bench has outscored its starting five (35-26 vs MIA; 47-36 vs. NCSU).