I’d never really considered my alma mater, UNCG, alongside my childhood favorite basketball team, NC State, until I saw them back-to-back. A noon game in Raleigh followed by a 5 p.m. match in Greensboro made that possible.
• Both teams have a coach now entrenched in the program, coaching their own recruits.
• Both teams have a recent, seemingly long history of mediocrity in their conference with glimpses of brilliance.
• Both teams lost critical players in the past two years, just as they had chances to make moves in their conference.
• UNCG’s games are criminally under-attended (unless some ACC school is in town).
• UNCG is not good, while NC State might be pretty good.
• Those two differences are not mutually exclusive.
To call UNCG’s performance against Mercer woeful would be unfair to Mercer. They deserve credit for hitting wide-open threes for two hours. Mercer looked like a team that would be fun to watch in any postseason tournament, where UNCG looked like a team that has to be invited to the SoCon Tournament in March.
I don’t mean this as a bash-fest against Greensboro, though. They have some talent. RJ White looked passable, even if there has been regression from last year. He may have had an off night. Tevon Sadler lit up the Bears for stretches before Mercer mercilessly pulled away. Kayel Locke added needed offense at critical junctures with an unexpected slashing game.
I only say unexpected because no one else on the team seemed interested in the basket.
My first in-print column last year dealt with the improvement of the program in Coach Wes Miller’s third year. Since then, the team lost a key transfer and players ready to move into Miller’s rotation looked confused in pressure defense and an offense that lacked both dynamics and presence.
Whether purposefully or not, UNCG’s ball-handlers were so often stranded against Mercer that they should have started most possessions with 10 seconds on the shot clock. The Spartans repeatedly went to a two-man game — extending one side of the defense to create space — but they never knew how to exploit that space. They rarely used ball reversal. Most of their shots ended up as floaters or contested jumpers.
When the two-man game on the wing didn’t work, the off-the-ball screens congested the lane more than they produced space for the intended target, senior Nicholas Paulus, the three-point specialist.
Paulus rarely saw space, though he buried a pair of threes when he did.
Defensively, Mercer endured a half-court pressure system that caused havoc in spurts. When UNCG moved as a coordinated unit, they altered plays and made Mercer adjust. When they didn’t?
It would be easy to use a bunch of phrases like “with impunity” or “at will” when talking about Mercer’s open threes, but the most correct word, really, is often. Mercer found open shooters often, and, as open shooters do, Mercer made those shots.
Compare all of this to a team in a similar position — NC State pummeled a lesser ACC team in Raleigh. Pittsburgh, with a team built on defense and slowdown basketball, could not muster a series of good possessions the whole afternoon. The Wolfpack smothered their opponent with consistency on both ends. They had superior athletes, flexed their proverbial muscle and, honestly, never once looked sacred of Pitt.
UNCG, however, looked aimless defensively. They looked inept offensively. And they have very little time to figure out a new plan.
If they stumble upon one, it may be too late anyway. Conference favorite Wofford gave No. 2 ranked Duke a tough run and beat NC State in Reynolds Coliseum — the ’80s home of the men’s team and a place the Wolfpack had not lost in many years. Wofford looked like world-beaters in losses and UNCG looked timid at best in a blowout loss to a conference foe.
Maybe that is the much better comparison. The conference keeps moving, while UNCG stays the same. Wes Miller’s fourth year will be marked by regression, some tough losses, maybe some stepping-stone wins, but, at best, a middling finish.
How many more will the school bear? And how many more will the players slog through? Hopefully not too many more, or the empty coliseum will lose the small amount of luster it provides.
Comparisons be damned. UNCG’s rough game looked miserable and the score, 76-55, only describes the half of it. Another year of discovery may leave the coaches and the players in peril — the opposite of a year ago for certain.
And the opposite of a good team in any league.