Struggling UNC stressed, lacking confidence
CHAPEL HILL, NC — This isn't exactly an earth-shattering revelation, but North Carolina is not a good basketball team right now.
The Tar Heels have faced six quality opponents this season and have lost to five of them, the fifth being Miami, which visited the Dean Smith Center on Thursday night and left with a 68-59 victory.
UNC led 52-51 with 9:08 remaining and trailed just 56-55 with five minutes left. But the Heels tightened. They left Hurricanes wide open for 3-pointers, couldn't get rebounds on the defensive end and failed to execute offensively.
For the first 35 minutes, the Tar Heels (10-5) did enough to win. They played hard and executed some of the little things absent in a loss at Virginia last Sunday night and that were addressed in a players-only meeting instigated by junior wing Reggie Bullock on Monday.
But the floor caved in for the Tar Heels in that final, lengthy segment, and the result is just UNC's third 0-2 start to an ACC season since 1997. More so, however, is the reality that this just isn't a very good team. And with that, confidence is beginning to wane.
"Any loss feels like crap, but this definitely is worse playing at home ... we let the fans down, we let ourselves down, and we feel like we can play a lot better as a team, all of us," said sophomore wing P.J. Hairston. "If we're all in we feel like we can play a lot better."
Fans can nit-pick this loss to death and point out the obvious deficiencies in the Tar Heels, which included a 26-minute effort by senior guard Dexter Strickland whose stat line had all zeroes except for one missed shot attempt.
Not having an ACC-caliber point guard or any semblance of an inside offensive threat are issues that aren't going away and have been repeatedly addressed. Midseason trades can't be made in college basketball, so the problem isn't going away.
Miami coach Jim Larranaga was an assistant at Virginia in the 1980s and is familiar with a constant that has helped make UNC one of the top programs in the nation for so long.
"The one major difference is, in all the years I've coached against North Carolina, they were always much bigger than us," Larranaga said. "This year they're a little different."
UNC coach Roy Williams has tried going small more frequently of late. He used freshmen forwards Brice Johnson for 18 minutes and J.P Tokoto for 12 on Thursday. They played fairly well, but aren't the answer, and the truth is nothing will change unless the Heels make playing defense extremely personal and hit some perimeter shots with regularity.
Otherwise, this season could spiral out of control.
Williams looked like a worn man in his postgame news conference. He almost appeared to have no answers, and acknowledged his team is stressed, which is affecting their confidence.
"Well, there's no question that it does," Williams said. "But we've got to get away from that. Life's going to throw you some curveballs. Life's going to throw you some adversity. If you're always worried, you're never going to get that changed."
Is the Hall of Fame coach stressed?
"I'm stressed, there's no question about that," he replied. "But I'm not a guy to panic. I'm not a guy to give up or anything like that. I'm going to come in tomorrow and coach the crap out of them."
But will things change? Will coaching "the crap out of them" get the team to finally find open shooters on the wing, to stop dribble penetration, to communicate help-side defense, to set solid screens on offense, and when they are set, will the shooters rub off them properly?
Can Williams instill enough confidence in the Tar Heels to figure out a way to leave Tallahassee, Fla., with a win, or at least a respectable effort on Saturday? Keep in mind, last season's 32-win Carolina team with four of the top-17 picks in the NBA Draft were blitzkrieged at Florida State by 33 points.
Following the FSU trip, the Tar Heels will get a week off before facing Maryland and its depth and solid front line, which includes likely 7-foot lottery pick Alex Len on Jan. 19 in Chapel Hill.
UNC plays home-and-home series with Duke, NC State, Maryland, FSU and Miami, which are probably the top five teams in the ACC. The Heels play Clemson, Boston College, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, easily the league's bottom four squads, just once each.
UNC still has the talent and potential to put it together and make a push to the NCAA tournament. But right now, this looks like an NIT at best.
"I'm not concerned, I just hope that we make a lot of changes and try to get wins, because everybody likes playing on a team that wins," Bullock said. "Nobody likes playing on a team that loses."
Hence, these aren't happy Heels.