The North Carolina Tar Heels are once again off to a rocky start two games into the ACC schedule. With a visit to the Carrier Dome to face the No. 2 Syracuse Orange slated for Saturday, Roy Williams has his hands full getting UNC back on the right track.
Many concerns have been voiced about this squad since the loss to Belmont three games into the 2013-14 season. Those same concerns still linger. The team has only provided its coaches and fans with temporary relief in wins over every ranked opponent it has faced.
These are the Tar Heels' five biggest concerns right now in ACC play.
There is really nothing a coach or teammate can tell a freshman to prepare him for conference play—especially in a top-notch conference that was expanded with perennial powerhouses like Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt. Some things they just have to experience firsthand.
According to ESPN's C.L. Brown, Roy Williams tried warning the team of what was to come. Nate Britt had a hard time believing the intensity could go up "about 10 levels" after experiencing the nonconference slate, so the freshman reached out to Marcus Paige.
[Britt] asked me if it’s really that much of a difference. I was like, ‘Uh, yeah.’ I struggled a lot the first few games of conference just because the attention to detail, the effort, and the level of intensity in every game just jumps to a whole ‘nother level, but I think he’ll be ready for it.
Well, he wasn't. Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and most of the other underclassmen weren't either.
Sometimes it takes a good ol' slap in the jaw to make the youngsters realize what it takes to win at this level. That's something that Wake Forest and Miami have both already provided the Tar Heels.
The roller-coaster 2013-14 season appears to be wearing on the players, their Hall of Fame coach (just listen to Williams' post-Miami presser) and the fans. Trust me, any positive thinkers out there should steer clear of UNC forums until the next win.
The Tar Heels had three very tough losses in nonconference action, but at least they were spaced out with big-time wins.
Dropping the first two ACC games against teams expected to be bottom-dwellers will be a much harder pill to swallow.
What's most disconcerting is that the Tar Heels will be going up against a 15-0 Syracuse team this Saturday. Many feel Syracuse is poised to take home the ACC title in its first season with the conference. It also plays zone defense better than anyone in the country—a defensive scheme that has stymied the perimeter-challenged Tar Heels.
Roy Williams has started 0-2 twice since taking over the program in Chapel Hill. Once was in 2008-09, when his team went on to win a national title. The other time was last season, when the Tar Heels managed to finish third in the ACC with a 12-6 record, made it to the conference title game, and ultimately lost to Kansas in the NCAA tournament's Round of 32.
While the Tar Heels look less like an ACC title team with every loss and their three wins over Top 25 opponents seem like they happened years ago, this team is still in the mix.
It is far from the dysfunctional 2009-10 team that went 5-11 in the conference, even though many are quick to compare a struggling UNC squad to Williams' worst team. We heard the same last season.
But there is no denying an 0-3 start could be too much for this youthful squad to overcome—mentally, physically and mathematically. The Tar Heels simply cannot lose to the 'Cuse.
Just when it seemed like the Tar Heels were poised to put their free-throw shooting woes in the rearview, the not-so-charitable stripe reared its ugly head once again.
Before conference action began, UNC was fifth in the nation with 31.7 free-throw attempts per game on the season and was shooting 71.6 percent from the stripe since its dismal 24-of-47 performance in the loss to Texas.
In the last two games, the Tar Heels are just 19-of-31 (61.3 percent).
Yes, that's fewer free-throw attempts in two games than their per-game average on the season. But the percentage is in line with what they've done this season. They averaged 19.8 makes on those 31.7 attempts in nonconference games.
That's not a good thing. And it's even worse when those numbers span two contests.
The lack of attempts lately has had a lot to do with guys settling for jumpers rather than taking it to the rack or feeding the post. It also has to do with the referees that have a tendency to eat the whistle in conference action.
That's no excuse. That's just the reality of the game and one of the many reasons ACC play is a whole 'nother animal.
The bottom line is that they have to do better at the stripe.
Marcus Paige was off to a scorching start this season as a sophomore. He was attacking the basket and setting the nets on fire from deep, reaching the 20-point mark five times in the first 10 games, which included a 32-point performance against Louisville.
In the five games since, Paige is averaging just 11.8 points and has converted just eight of his last 31 three-point attempts.
The reason for his recent slump is something both Williams and Paige are struggling to find an answer to. His 35.3 minutes per game are certainly a factor. That's 5.5 more than the next guy, James Michael McAdoo, and more than anyone Williams has coached. And this is a sophomore point guard who has been forced into a combo role with Hairston's ineligibility.
According to comments he made to Inside Carolina's Greg Barnes, Paige is shouldering the load.
"My teammates look for me to be aggressive," he said. "If I’m being aggressive and not making shots, that’s not helping us. I just have to do better. I’ve got to find a way to help the team instead of missing jump shots."
While that may be true, it would help if the team's leading scorer had a consistent sidekick to occupy defenses and help him—and the team—out of a rut.
It's not much different from the struggles we saw last season. For the bulk of the season, it was Reggie Bullock shouldering the load for the Tar Heels while defenses keyed in on McAdoo. Until Hairston emerged from the bench, the 'Heels looked lost in the half court.
Now, it's up to someone else to step in as a major contributor.
The problem is that there may not be another guy on the roster capable at this time.
McAdoo has been wildly inconsistent and still doesn't appear to have much of a post game. J.P. Tokoto has become a great piece on this team, but he is merely a pawn at this stage of his career with his limited skill set on offense. Leslie McDonald is having a hard time finishing inside, and his heat index from the perimeter seems to drop with the outside temperature.
At the beginning of the season, it seemed Brice Johnson could be that guy. But he has also been slumping on offense lately, and his body language hasn't been indicative of change.
The only solution is to play as one unit, which seems to be the Tar Heels' greatest deficiency in losses. Too often, Paige's teammates are looking for him to be the aggressor. And though he is the team's best scorer and its leader, guys can't be napping while he has the rock.
Paige can't score 32 points every game.
In the win over Michigan State, Paige had just 13 points. But four other Tar Heels landed in double-figures. Against Kentucky, they eventually needed his 23 points, but they led 33-30 at the half even though he had only scored two points before the break. McAdoo finished with 20 and Tokoto added another 15.
Individually, this team is lost. As one cohesive unit, the sky is the limit. No matter how much they may seem like it after five disappointing losses, the three biggest wins of the season were no fluke.
The other factor in those big-time wins was intensity, and that is not a new subject. It was my final point in "Tar Heels' 5 Keys to Winning the ACC."
In it, I posed this question: "How will Williams keep these guys from playing down to every team not named Duke or Syracuse?"
Well, we still don't have an answer.
The team's overall lack of passion and fire against unranked opponents was evident in its losses to Wake Forest and Miami this week. The players were lazily going after rebounds, they couldn't stay in front of the ball on defense, and the bigs weren't stopping penetration.
Everyone was dragging their feet as if they ran the Boston Marathon before suiting up.
I'm almost willing to guarantee you will see a different team on Saturday in the Carrier Dome. That's not to say that they will win, but they will play much better because the intensity will be there.
They could hang their heads and give up on the season after this poor start to the conference schedule. But that's not the identity of this team. They don't give up. They fought to the end in all the losses.
And if they played the whole game like they did at the end of those five losses, we'd have a completely different perspective on the 2013-14 Tar Heels. People wouldn't be predicting an NIT season again or calling for Coach Williams' head...again.
The Tar Heels have what it takes to be special. They just have to dig deep and figure out why they don't play every game like it matters. That isn't Coach Williams' puzzle to solve; that's on the players.
It's going to take a lot of Dramamine to get through this ride if they don't figure it out.
Rollin Yeatts is the lead columnist for North Carolina Tar Heels basketball on Bleacher Report. He also hosts a weekly all-sports video podcast at TSB Sports.