CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Without good guard it's almost impossible to win basketball games in March. As it turns out, not having it can be a problem in November, too.
North Carolina found that out the hard way, as their backcourt pulled a no-show in a 79-67 loss to No. 20 Illinois in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The Illini shut out Carolina's starting backcourt of Larry Drew II and Dexter Strickland in the first half, as well as three reserves who came off the bench.
John Henson had his second good game in a row, leading the Tar Heels with 16 points, but that wasn't enough against an Illinois lineup with three seniors.
"It's difficult for us right now," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "To me, the game in a nutshell was (Illinois') veteran experienced players playing like good veteran experienced players."
Forward Mike Davis led the Illini with 20 points and 10 rebounds while guard Demetri McCamey scored 17 points and dished out eight assists.
"Demetri was something else," Williams said. "He never looked like he felt pressure. I felt like Demetri controlled the basketball game."
The same could obviously not be said for Carolina's guards.
Things started out well, when they were able to feed the post and keep the scoring in the paint - that was certainly a factor in the scoring goose egg for the UNC guards.
But once Tyler Zeller picked up his third foul with nine minutes to go in the first half, their biggest inside threat was gone.
Henson and Justin Knox picked up the slack, but without guard help, the Tar Heels (4-3) couldn't take advantage of staying close to Illinois (7-1).
"It kind of disrupted our rhythm offensively," said Drew, who had seven assists and three turnovers, though only one of those assists came in the second half.
At the end of the day, the Tar Heels were not done in by any environmental factors in their first true road game of the year (although freshman Harrison Barnes heard his share of "overrated" chants).
They were just plagued by the same problems they have had most of the young season.
They turned the ball over 18 times in the game, and 14 of those giveaways came from the guards.
"Their defense was so much more aggressive than our offense was sharp," Williams said. "We didn't make very good decisions. But sometimes you make bad decisions because the other guys have you back on your heels."
Carolina also missed nine of its 17 free through attempts, and the Illini never appeared to be in any real danger of giving up the lead, which swelled to as many as 16 in the second half.
Zeller was the only source of UNC offense over a six-minute stretch in the first half until he picked up that third foul with nine minutes to go.
Williams blamed himself for not taking Zeller out after his second foul, which occurred just 43 seconds earlier, while Zeller blamed himself for doing "something stupid" to pick up the third.
"It was disconcerting to have to sit on the bench the rest of the half," Zeller said.
The rest of the Tar Heels played like they agreed.
No UNC guard managed to score a basket in the entire first half, combining to shoot 0 for 7.
Meanwhile, the Illini's starting backcourt tandem of McCamey and D.J. Richardson combined for 21 in the half, including a 3-pointer by Richardson at the buzzer that gave Illinois a 37-30 advantage going to the locker room.
That dichotomy was telling in the end result, which was a hard lesson for the Tar Heels judging by the mood in the locker room.
"It's a game," said freshman guard Kendall Marshall, who had no points, no assists and three turnovers. "The season's not over."