CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina (10-5, 0-2 ACC) has yet to beat a team that’s legitimately middle of the pack in college basketball, and that’s a problem since there are plenty of those in the ACC. This time, it was a scrappy Miami (9-6, 1-2 ACC) team that slowed the game down, befuddled the Tar Heels with their zone, attacked UNC’s traps and scrambled as well as any team has all season.
Yet again, the roller coaster Tar Heels are taking everyone on a ride that’s become less fun and unpredictable for their head coach Roy Williams than it is just nauseating and disorienting.
"I do feel," Williams said, pausing to collect himself, "mentally probably worse than I’ve felt as a head coach right now."
And with a trip to undefeated Syracuse looming this weekend, there are certainly no easy answers.
"As a coach right now the last two games, you start questioning everything you do from silly stuff like what coat you wear to what kind of defense you’re playing," Williams said.
1. This was less about UNC’s effort level or intensity or inconsistency than it was about the Tar Heels just being limited offensively.
UNC has shown all season long that it struggles against a zone defense, and Miami plays that as well as anyone in the country — except, maybe, for UNC’s next opponent (Syracuse).
When Miami faced Syracuse this past weekend, it made the game a half-court, grind-it-out affair with limited possessions and no easy baskets.
The Hurricanes did the same thing against the Tar Heels, ultimately winning 63-57 on the strength of their defense both on the three-point line (UNC shot 5-of-21) and in the paint (where UNC shot 12-of-35).
But the Tar Heels scored over 38 percent of their points — 22-of-57 — off of offensive rebounds or on the break. Very few in a halfcourt set against that zone.
A lot of it was Miami, of course. But plenty was on UNC as well.
Williams said his team worked a lot on zone offense the last few days, but he was the first to say it didn’t show in the game.
"I think motion or movement wasn’t very consistent. It wasn’t very intelligent movement," Williams said. "And then we’d sort of pass and stand still for a second instead of moving immediately. And we had some good looks and didn’t make them. They had seven blocked shots. We had some things around the rim and they made it tough for us. So I think it was really a little bit of everything. We’re limited in the number of people that make three-point shots. I still want to get the ball inside and if it comes back out, that’s fine."
That’s the biggest issue the Tar Heels have right now — unless both Marcus Paige and Leslie McDonald are on the court at the same time, there’s no one else on the roster that can hit from the outside, and they’re a much easier team to zone because of it, especially when teams concentrate on chasing those two off the three-point line.
Of course, UNC would make life much easier on itself offensively if it was crisper on that end. But the Tar Heels simply don’t have much margin for error, and it shows. They can’t afford to waste possessions.
"We’re not doing the little things that help us out a great deal. Even down the stretch when it was a two-possession game, we have two turnovers in a row, we have a couple silly turnovers and you can’t do those kind of things," Williams said.
"You can look at 1,000 things and point out 1,000 reasons why it came like it did, but the bottom line is Miami played better than we did. Their coach coached better than I did."
2. When Marcus Paige doesn’t play well, neither does UNC.
The Tar Heels’ leading scorer is continuously asked — implicitly, anyway — to carry this team on his back offensively.
For the most part, he’s been able to do that. And at times when he wasn’t, his teammates picked him up.
In the last two games, though, the sophomore guard has shot 5-of-27 from the floor (3-of-19 from three) and scored a total of 16 points (eight in each game).
He’s had to play an exorbitant amount of minutes, but when Williams asked him after the Wake Forest game if he was feeling fatigued, he insisted he wasn’t.
"He’s such a wonderful kid. I asked him the other day at practice, I said, ‘Sunday night, am I playing you too many minutes? Is it stamina? Were you hurt? Or was it just a bad game?’ He said, ‘No Coach, it wasn’t that. It was a terrible game. I just played terrible’," Williams said.
"He has more accountability than just about any kid I’ve ever coached. If I were to go in there right now to him and say it, he would say the same thing. But maybe I have played him too many minutes. â¦ I don’t know the answer right now. Best thing is if I knew the answer, I would’ve already changed it."
At Wake Forest, he was 2-of-4 (1-of-2 from three) in the last 7:24 for five points to go with three assists in a comeback effort that fell short. But that means that for the rest of the game, he was 1-of-8 from the floor (0-of-6 from 3) and 1-of-2 from the foul line, scoring 3 points and adding two rebounds, three assists, no steals, two fouls and four turnovers.
He tried to reprise that closer role against Miami, but in the final 2:24, he was 1-of-7 (1-of-5 from three). To show how effective Miami was at limiting him the rest of the night, he took nearly as many shots in the first 37:36 of the game (eight – he made just one) as he did in that stretch.
And he went nearly eight minutes without attempting a shot at all (though he had a few assists in that span).
"He’s probably going through a drought right now. He’ll be fine," sophomore Brice Johnson said. "He just has to relax. He’s doing fine. It’s just a couple bad games and it’s fine. We all have bad games. But other people have to step up at the same time. We all have to come together and be able to play when he’s down, and when he’s up, we all have to play with him still."
3. At 0-2 in the ACC and with five losses already, the pressure is on.
Pressure is hardly something unique to UNC basketball. These players understood that was part of the gig when they signed up for it. As did their head coach.
But the emotion was written all over all of their faces after the loss — frustration, confusion, even bewilderment.
None more so than Williams, who had to stop and collect himself a few times during the postgame press conference.
"It’s not Coach’s fault. It doesn’t get much better than Coach," James Michael McAdoo said. "So it really falls on the players a lot of the time, and this is one of those times."
That wasn’t how Williams put it, though.
At times after a loss, Williams will critique his players’ effort or execution. But more often than not, he wears it as the head coach. And he wore this one.
"I’ve got to do a better job. When you go to school here and you coach here as an assistant and then you come back and coach here, it’s a feeling of ownership and it’s a feeling of pride," Williams said. "And right now, I’m not doing a very good job with this basketball team. That’s the hardest thing there is that I’ve ever had to say.
"We have wonderful kids in that locker room. We’re not playing very well right now."
If there’s anything this young group has to cling to, it’s that it does have wins over some very good teams this year. So it’s not like they don’t already have proof that they’re capable of more.
They’ll certainly try to use that as they travel to Syracuse this weekend.
"I don’t think (the upset wins are) a thing of the past. I can tell you that the losses we have are a thing of the past as well. Maybe we’re a new team now, starting tomorrow at practice," Paige said.
"You’ve got to look at that as a positive thing and address the negatives of our couple losses that we’ve had and then just move on. The wins aren’t going to help you win the game Saturday and the losses aren’t going to help you lose the game Saturday. You’ve got to show up to play every day."
UNC is 3-3 in its last six games after beating Kentucky on December 14. As the losses to mid-tier teams pile up, it’s as if the team has started to question itself.
"We’re a little shook — 0-2 in league play is not the way we expected to start," Paige admitted. "But everyone faces a little bit of adversity here and there. I know we have guys that aren’t ready to give in and quit, and this group is tough enough to make things happen."
Williams has been 0-2 in conference play two other times in the last five seasons — in 2009 and then last year. In 2009, UNC finished 13-3 in league play and in 2013, 12-6. Oh, and the 2009 team won the national championship.
This year’s team is not 2009, and it’s certainly not much like last year’s — except, of course, for the predicament it finds itself in.
"We were 0-2 last year but we’re not going to look at that as, oh, we’re doing the same thing this year. We just have to keep playing," Johnson said. "The league’s a lot bigger than it was last year with Syracuse and with that being our next game. We just have to come out and be ready to play next game, just give it our all, just give every effort that we can out there and be ready to play."
Williams is in tune with where his team is emotionally, and he knows it’s not a great place right now.
"There’s no question we’re feeling the stress. You do that at North Carolina. You’re not supposed to lose," Williams said. "We’ve had that a couple of times in my time period here, including in ’09, but those guys were also extremely confident. Our kids are feeling the stress. I’ve got to make sure that we don’t feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got to keep competing."
"Just keep fighting as a team, just come together as a team and just keep playing," Johnson said. "Don’t give in. Don’t fold."