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Lucas: Road Graded

Lucas: Road Graded

By Adam Lucas

BIRMINGHAM--And that, folks, is exactly why very few of the nation's top programs play true road games in the month of December.

And, at least partially, that is exactly why Roy Williams continues to play them.

Twenty-six times now, he's taken his Carolina team into a true road environment--not a neutral site near an opponent, but their actual home court. The Tar Heel winning percentage isn't overwhelmingly outstanding in those games, as they've won 16 of them (.615). That's not bad for road success, but do you think the Tar Heels might have a little better percentage if those games were played at the Smith Center or a "neutral" site like Greensboro or Charlotte?

Most definitely. But Williams continues to put his team in these environments, continues to pack the bags for places like Long Beach and Charleston and Birmingham, places where a visit from Carolina is clearly the marquee event on the home schedule. His team has now lost four of its last five nonconference true road games, but that's in the same time frame when they've won 12 out of 17 ACC road contests (.706). One, perhaps, has something to do with the other.

The Tar Heel head coach finds value in forcing his team to execute down four with the ball and five minutes to play, with a hostile crowd on their feet against them. Carolina was in that situation three times against UAB between the five-minute mark and three-minute mark and was never able to get a hoop.

He wants his team to figure out what to do down three with 36.1 seconds on the clock, on a court other than the familiar blue one where they practice every day. That was the scenario after Chad Frazier (a North Carolina native, of course) made the final two free throws of his 25-point performance. But UAB, as they did for most of the evening with tenacious defense, tenacious rebounding and, well, tenacious everything, frustrated the Tar Heel offense. The play broke down on the sideline and Marcus Paige had to force a shot.

And yes, Carolina had some timeouts to burn at that moment. But their point guard didn't feel the situation called for one. He looked surprised when asked if one could have been used when he appeared bottled up in front of the UNC bench.

"We weren't in that troubled a situation where we needed a timeout," Paige said. "We were trying to save them for when it became a free throw game at the end. But the play broke down and we didn't quite get the shot we wanted."

Carolina has now had a couple late-game situations break down, one against Belmont and this one against the Blazers. It would be much better, as Williams himself often says, to learn from a win rather than from a loss. But sometimes the learning creates the loss.

If, in those final 30 seconds, the Tar Heels had five seniors on the court who had played together for three seasons, the flub would be absolutely infuriating. The truth is this year's team was intended and was built to have some veterans available for that situation. But instead, the current reality is they had a freshman, three sophomores and a junior on the floor. So instead of being infuriating, maybe it's merely exasperating. That doesn't exactly make a 63-59 loss feel any better.

But again, that's why so many other teams never set foot on the road. It eliminates the risk of this exact situation happening--a cold night from the best scorer against an energized opponent that gets a hand on every loose ball.

UAB shot 21.9% from the field in the second half...and won the game. Let that sink in for a minute. You think they would've survived that kind of drought at the Smith Center, where the crowd could have built a little momentum and maybe cast a little doubt in their heads? In fact, that's almost exactly the drought they ran into in the second half in Chapel Hill last year, when Carolina turned a tight second-half game into a comfortable win.

Where the crowd wouldn't have mattered, unless it was filled with Sean May clones with significant eligibility remaining, was on the backboard. The late game struggles and other problems will get some attention, but it's in the rebounding battle (52-37 in favor of UAB) where the Blazers dominated the game. They came into Sunday with a 42.2 offensive rebounding percentage, meaning they grabbed 42 percent of their available missed shots.

That's why Roy Williams singled out rebounding as one of the three factors he keyed on with his team before the game. It wasn't a new idea; since the beginning of the year, he's repeatedly identified rebounding as an area of the game his team has to win in order to be successful.

And yet, UAB actually bettered its season figure against Carolina, getting an offensive rebound on 46.7% of the available opportunities. Think about that for just a second. Half the time the Blazers fired the ball and missed, they came up with the rebound.

"To me, it's the most important factor in basketball," Williams said of the offensive glass.

If UAB had been more accurate from the field and converted some of those repeated chances-the most unbelievable stat of the game is the Tar Heels actually had a 13-12 edge in second chance points-there wouldn't have been a chance for any late game learning, because the game would've been well out of reach.

As Paige put it, "They kind of manhandled us."

"We weren't competing," said Brice Johnson, who finished with seven rebounds in 16 minutes. "We have to box out better. At one point in the second half they got second chances on five possessions in a row, and Coach got on us and said we have to get on the backboards...It really hurts you because you play defense for 30 seconds and then have to play another 35 seconds. It really wears you down after a while."

And who is the next opponent? A Michigan State team that under Tom Izzo has built a reputation on manhandling opponents on the backboards, and will be angry after a decade of losing to Williams in big situations.

Oh, and it's on the road. In less than 48 hours, the Tar Heels leave on their next road trip, a Tuesday flight for Wednesday's very difficult assignment in East Lansing.

"Down the road, against Michigan State and in the ACC, it's going to help when we get in those situations when under a minute left," Paige said of Sunday's game situation experience against the Blazers trying to execute in the final minutes. "But the truth is that we never should've been in that situation tonight to begin with."

Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.