Thursday, February 9, 2012

Anatomy of a Meltdown: Poor Coaching, Poor Foul Shooting, Poor Decision-Making

With 2:38 remaining in the first of two meetings between Duke and North Carolina, the Tar Heels held a 10-point lead on their home court and looked to have the game in hand. After a slow start, they stormed back to take the lead before halftime and led for every single moment of the second half … until this happened:

So how exactly did this happen? A combination of poor coaching, poor foul shooting and poor decision-making on the part of Roy Williams and his squad. Just take a look at the key plays in the final 2 minutes and 38 seconds of the game. Following a jumper by Harrison Barnes to give the Heels an 82-72 lead, Williams took a timeout to set up his defense, and at the same time, he took out his team's second-leading rebounder, Tyler Zeller, who had four fouls. Williams had to make the choice between risking Zeller picking up a 5th foul on defense and being lost for the final moments or risk taking out one of his best rebounders when possessions were at a premium. He chose to sit Zeller so he'd have his big man on offense.

It's definitely hard to argue with that line of thinking, but it didn't help that following a block by John Henson on a Ryan Kelly three, Duke nabbed the ball and then got a surprising three by Tyler Thornton to make it an 82-75 game.

Roy then used another timeout, bringing Zeller back and presumably setting up a play that would both bleed the clock a bit and get a good shot. Instead, the normally sure-handed Kendall Marshall, who had only turned the ball over twice all game up until that point, turned it over immediately. That's when Duke took advantage of a break the way North Carolina seemingly couldn't all game long, even as they were leading by double digits for most of the second half.

Thornton threw a skip pass to Seth Curry, who blatantly walked but was not called for it and then proceeded to drain a huge three, 82-78, 1:48 remaining.

To compound that, Harrison Barnes, who had exploded in the second half to help UNC surge to a double-digit lead, made a boneheaded decision, trying to drive through the teeth of the Duke defense, essentially going it alone way too early in the shot clock, and turning it over with a deadly charge. I didn't want to even talk because you could see what was coming. North Carolina was choking after controlling things for more than half the game, and Duke was feeding off it.

Ryan Kelly then followed his own miss, hitting a jumper to suddenly cut a lead that was once as big as 13 points down to 2, 1:10 remaining.

And the meltdown just continued. Zeller, who was a man's man in the first half turned forgotten man in the second half — something of a regular occurrence for UNC — was fouled. The normally excellent free-throw shooter missed the first, ensuring the game remained a one-possession contest. After making the second, the Heels held a three-point advantage with 44 seconds remaining.

Duke used its remaining timeout and executed, with Kelly hitting yet another big shot, making it 83-82 with 14 seconds remaining. Once again, Zeller was fouled, and once again, he went just one of two from the line, now not only leaving the door open yet again for Duke, but giving them a huge opportunity given the way Duke was shooting the ball from deep.

And finally, to cap things off, Reggie Bullock, who had been making Austin Rivers work hard for every incredible bucket he hit, switched off on a screen, handing Rivers over to Zeller. Zeller never stood a chance, and even though he did all he could, putting his hand in Rivers' face, Doc's son drilled the game-winning three to cap off his dominant, impressive night, scoring a game-high 29 points and only turning the ball over three times, to give Duke the stunning 85-84 win.

It was a meltdown of epic proportions: missed free throws, rushed shots, horrid turnovers and a coach just sitting there on the sidelines watching it all unfold.

Truth of the matter is, the Tar Heels could have put this game completely away earlier in the half, as both Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale mentioned. Out of the break, Barnes and Marshall took over and helped UNC build a 13-point lead. But as Barnes began to cool a bit and uncharacteristically struggled from the foul line — missing four freebies on the night — and Marshall's driving lanes weren't quite as gaping as before, the Heels failed to get it to Zeller. It's something that's driven me crazy for years now with Roy. As things start to go south, most coaches will call a timeout or at least drive the point home that things have to run through the best, most reliable player on the team. For Carolina, that is Zeller, no matter how good Harrison Barnes is. When Zeller is getting the touches and making things happen, UNC is nearly unbeatable. And while he did have 23 and 11, Zeller was ignored for much of the second half. By the time Carolina remembered the big guy was on the floor, the game was close, Zeller was cold and he was not able to convert critical free throws in the waning seconds.

Conversely, Mike Krzyzewski got the ball in his best player's hands time and time again. Austin Rivers was simply remarkable last night, so Coach K kept making sure Rivers got his looks. He put the ball in his best player's hands and lived and died with the results. That's what you expect a coach to do. Krzyzewski did, and he stole a victory. Williams didn't, and he gave away what looked like a sure win.

That's the most maddening part. This was an ending that never should have been allowed to happen. It's an embarrassment. And surely, it is on guys like Zeller, Barns and Marshall for coming up small in the final three minutes, missing free throws and turning the ball over at the most inopportune times, but it's also on the coach who failed to rein in his players and make sure they put a very good Duke team away.

Don't get me wrong, Roy is a great coach. He was incredibly successful at Kansas, and since he's returned to his alma mater, he's won two national championships and reestablished the Tar Heels as the cream of the crop along with Duke in the ACC. But he is no Mike Krzyzewski. He showed that last night. And Duke showed its mental make-up, led by a fearless freshman who was cherishing the moment.

Hats off to Austin Rivers for his brilliant performance and stunning buzzer-beater. But it should have never come to that had it not been for some poor coaching, poor foul shooting and poor decision-making by the Tar Heels.

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