What a season it has been for the 2013-14 North Carolina Tar Heels. At this point, it feels like UNC has already seen a season full of highs and lows, just three games into the ACC slate.
Can Carolina turn its season around and have a shot at the conference title? We won't know until it runs through the ultra-competitive gauntlet that is the new-look Atlantic Coast Conference. But things certainly aren't looking up for the Tar Heels.
All we can do is take a look back at the highest highs and humiliating lows that have defined the Tar Heels' season thus far.
After a 2-0 start to the season, North Carolina was handed its first loss by the Bruins. No, not UCLA. The Belmont Bruins.
It wasn't some big comeback by Belmont after Carolina phoned it in, either. The Bruins actually led the way for about 30 of the 40 minutes.
The Tar Heels recaptured the lead on a Marcus Paige three-pointer with 8:27 left on the clock. That was the first time they led since Nate Britt hit the first shot of the game to go up 3-0. Soon, Carolina would be up 78-70 with 2:37 to go.
This is the time you would expect a Carolina squad to step on the throat of a mid-major opponent in the Dean Dome. But the barrage of Bruin threes just kept on coming.
Belmont's J.J. Mann was just 2-of-11 from downtown prior to McAdoo's layup that put the Tar Heels up by eight. Then he nailed two free throws and sank his next three treys to put his team up 81-80 before teammate Caleb Chowbay iced the game with a layup.
Over half of Belmont's points came from behind the arc. The Bruins shot 15-of-37 from that range while the Tar Heels were just 2-of-7. What hurt the most statistically, though, was 26 misses from the free-throw line on 48 attempts.
That many misses from the line and a half-hearted effort on defense, doesn't pick up many wins for a D-I basketball team.
Fans were outraged by the loss to Belmont. That game was a complete meltdown of defense and passion, which made many believe this season would be a disgraceful one.
It wouldn't be long before the Carolina faithful started to believe again.
The Tar Heels got by a sneaky Richmond team in the first game of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament, but they would have to face Louisville in the championship game. Ranked No. 3 in the country, the Cardinals were sure to bury a Tar Heels squad that lost to Belmont at home just a week prior to the matchup.
Louisville went up by five points early, but Carolina went blow-for-blow for the remainder of the first half and eventually tied the game with a strong four-minute stretch from Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige. They scored 12 of the Tar Heels' last 16 points points of the half, and Paige buried a last-second three to knot it up at 44.
Nobody saw this game being tied going into the locker rooms.
When they came back out, the two teams began exchanging blows once again for the next five minutes or so. Then, the Tar Heels started wailing on Cardinals as if they had been using Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope tactic for the previous 25 minutes. Freshman Kennedy Meeks was absolutely littering the floor with deep outlet passes in transition.
Everyone was scoring. Even Jackson Simmons scored on two straight possessions.
UNC was up by as many as 16 before Louisville started mounting a comeback of its own. Russ Smith drilled a three to bring Louisville within 10 with 2:31 to go. After a couple misses by the Tar Heels on the other end, he had a shot to make it a seven-point game.
But the trey didn't fall, and Meeks chucked the ball down the court one more time for a Paige dunk that all but sealed the game for the underdogs. From there, Carolina cruised to a 93-84 victory that shocked the nation and revived its fanbase.
Paige scored a career-high 32 points, and Meeks dropped seven dimes on the defending champs.
The elation of victory would soon be trumped by the agony of defeat. Just one week after the signature win over Louisville, North Carolina would lose to another mid-major.
The Tar Heels came out flat in Birmingham against the UAB Blazers, led by former Tar Heel assistant coach Jerod Haase. UNC had a 4-2 lead after a jumper by J.P. Tokoto, but the team only managed 10 points over the next 10 minutes.
That allowed UAB to build a 24-14 advantage.
Tokoto got the scoring started again with a dunk, but the players were still dragging their feet on defense. The Blazers were up 37-25 at the first buzzer.
The second half didn't start out much better for the Tar Heels. For the first four minutes, it was miss after miss...after painstaking miss. They didn't score again until Tokoto threw down another jam at the 16:36 mark. Fortunately, UAB only managed one field goal in that time to keep Carolina in the game.
That dunk was initiated by a Paige steal on the other end, which finally seemed to awaken the Tar Heels from their defensive nap time. Another Paige steal and a few stops later, the Tar Heels were back within seven points.
Johnson cut the lead to five on a jumper with 10:35 left in the game before UNC and UAB went ice cold. Both teams were scoreless for the next four minutes before Tokoto, once again, broke the streak to make it 46-49 with 6:44 to go.
But UAB's relentless rebounding efforts proved to be too much for a Carolina team that just looked gassed.
Paige converted a three-point play after getting fouled on a layup to pull within one point of the Blazers with 41 seconds to go. That's as close as the Tar Heels would come. Paige missed his next two threes, and UAB made five of its last six free throws to seal the victory.
Paige (13) and Tokoto (16) were the only Tar Heels to score in double figures. The Blazers out-rebounded the Tar Heels 52-37, including 21 offensive rebounds.
With the loss to UAB, it seemed the Tar Heels were finished. Perhaps Louisville had just underestimated UNC after its loss to Belmont.
There was simply no way this Carolina squad could outplay a rugged Michigan State team in East Lansing. After all, the Spartans were the top dogs in the AP poll and were relentless rebounders with much more talent than a UAB team that slaughtered UNC on the boards.
The game started ugly with only six points scored in the first four minutes—all by North Carolina. Then the Tar Heels began to roll.
Their defense was suffocating, leaving few quality shots on the floor for the top-ranked Spartans. By the final TV timeout of the half, Carolina was up 28-17. Then, like a leaking balloon, the Tar Heels began to deflate, allowing the Spartans to climb back into the game and tie it at 32 before the half.
Once again, it appeared to be a case of Carolina letting off the gas.
Roy Williams must have found some jet fuel to spike their Gatorade with at halftime because they came back out with the intensity of champions. So did Michigan State, though, and it kept the game close until it hit a cold streak following two Gary Harris free throws.
The Tar Heels went on a 10-1 run over the next four minutes to build a 65-52 lead before Tom Izzo had enough. The Spartans looked like they would make it game following the timeout, as they pulled within eight points of the Tar Heels with three minutes left in regulation and the Spartan crowd going wild.
But the Tar Heels made eight of their final 14 free throws to put an end to MSU's run.
Nobody eclipsed the 20-point mark in this contest, but five Tar Heels landed in double-figures, and the team outrebounded Sparty 49-38. It was the best team effort by the 2013-14 Tar Heels to this date.
Though that strong performance by UNC brought hope back to its fanbase, there was still concern mounting. It had been an up-and-down ride thus far for the Tar Heels, and right now they were sitting at what appeared to be the top of the peak with the win over Michigan State and a 29-point victory over UNC-Greensboro.
You know that feeling when you're laid back and your nerves begin to unravel as your car clicks its way to the top of the roller coaster? That's how many Carolina fans felt heading into the game against the most ballyhooed crop of recruits since Michigan's Fab Five.
Though the 40-0 season Kentucky anticipated had long passed by, it still ranked No. 11 in the polls and was extremely intimidating with freshman phenom Julius Randle—who passed up Chapel Hill for Lexington.
Kentucky started the game strong with the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, slashing to the basket and Randle throwing down an emphatic dunk. That was the last time Kentucky's 6'9", 250-pound man-child would score in the first half.
After going up 14-8, the Tar Heels went score-for-score with Kentucky until its wheels began to fall off with seven minutes to go in the half. McAdoo, Tokoto and Joel James scored 12 of the Tar Heels' final 14 points of the half to take a 33-30 lead into the lockers.
Paige only mustered two points in the first half.
The game remained tight in the second half, as the Tar Heels could do nothing to stop penetration by the Harrisons. But that appeared to be the sacrifice they made to stop Randle, who was averaging 17.8 points per game heading into this one.
The strategy was appearing to work, as Carolina had a 66-58 lead before John Calipari called a timeout with 5:25 to go. Over the next three minutes, UK would pull within three points of UNC, but it just couldn't get over the hump in front of a raucous Carolina home crowd.
Kentucky continued to battle, but Paige ultimately sealed the deal as he went 6-of-6 from the free-throw line in the final 38 seconds.
Paige scored 21 of his 23 points in a second-half scoring barrage by the sophomore. McAdoo finished with 20 on the night and Tokoto added another 15 points. The Tar Heels were outrebounded 32-44, but their stifling defense was the key, forcing 10 steals on 17 turnovers and holding Randle to just 11 points and five rebounds.
But that was the last time we would see a defensive effort like that from the Tar Heels.
Now it was time for the Tar Heels to show their toughness. Roy Williams' squads have struggled to top the Texas Longhorns over the years, but now they'd be facing UNC in enemy territory after another signature win by the 'Heels.
Though unranked, Texas came into Chapel Hill sporting a 9-1 record and they were not to be denied of win No. 10.
The Tar Heels started off strong, making good on their first three attempts of the night. But the defense couldn't stop Demarcus Holland, who scored the Longhorns' first seven points. And as the defense goes in Carolina, so does the offense.
A 7-6 lead by the Longhorns quickly turned into a 16-8 advantage before Tokoto sank a free throw to get the home team going again. Soon, Carolina would grab its first lead of the night, 21-19, but that wouldn't last long.
UNC went cold again, and sloppy defense put Texas on the line, where they capitalized for the remainder of the half. The defense allowed 53 points, which was the main culprit of an 11-point halftime deficit.
Texas went cold for the first 10 minutes of the second half, allowing the Tar Heels to sneak back into the game on a 16-11 run. Suddenly, as if Roy Williams found jet fuel again to spike his players' drinks with, the Tar Heels started playing with the passion and intensity that had been lost for the first 30 minutes of the contest.
Carolina went on a 12-2 run to tie the game at 72 before a TV timeout took the wind out of its sails with 3:35 to go. Just when it appeared they were out of it, down 84-78 with 26 ticks on the clock, Isaiah Taylor picked up a technical that sent Paige to the free-throw line. He proceeded to bury both free throws and cap it off with a clutch three, making it 84-83 in favor of Texas.
McAdoo fouled Holland on the next play to force free throws and stop the clock. Holland missed both, but managed to corral his own rebound and stick it back in.
Paige had one last shot to tie the game, but his three-pointer rimmed out at the buzzer.
Once again, Carolina left a ton of points at the stripe, missing 23 of its 47 free throws. They also allowed the Longhorns to haul in 20 offensive rebounds.
Just a few more makes from the free-throw line and a little tenacity on the boards could have easily changed the outcome of this one. But that's pretty much the story of this 2013-14 season thus far.
Fifth-year senior Leslie McDonald made his long-awaited return to the court against Texas, sinking four treys and scoring 15 points over 22 minutes of action. According to ESPN's C.L. Brown, McDonald will have to pay back $1,783 in improper benefits to a charity of his choosing after accepting "the use of luxury cars, payment of parking tickets, a cellphone and lodging."
He missed the first nine games of the season.
For P.J. Hairston, the end game wasn't as sweet. After months of investigation, North Carolina's athletic director, Bubba Cunningham, announced the university would not apply for Hairston's reinstatement (h/t C.L. Brown, ESPN):
We've taken a long time to get to this point. It's very disappointing for P.J. and his family. He has been terrific, as Roy has said, in the past six months in this entire process.
We are not going to seek reinstatement for him.
We may never know all the details and facts with it ending this way. This resolution keeps everything off the record that hadn't already been leaked. Perhaps that's how the decision-makers preferred it to be.
With all hope of Hairston's return lost, the Tar Heels would have to find a way to pick themselves off the mat after a tough loss to Texas and their best weapon removed from the team.
The Tar Heels did manage to pick themselves up...kind of...for a few games.
They should have never gone to overtime at home against Davidson unless that was Steph Curry dressed as Brian Sullivan when he put up a 33-spot on the 'Heels. But at least they got the win with a dominant OT.
Then there was the less-than-impressive 15-point victory over Northern Kentucky and a 33-point drubbing of UNC-Wilmington which still, somehow, didn't feel that impressive. The energy still wasn't there; only mere talent prevailed.
Certainly, the Tar Heels would be able to collect themselves over the next week and find the fire in their hearts to handle the upcoming ACC schedule. At least they got to start of with Wake Forest, right?
One would think. But it was another half-hearted loss by a painful six points. A few days later, it was deja vu with another six-point loss—this time to Miami in the Dean Dome.
Who better to face next, when all seems lost, than No. 2 Syracuse? Perhaps that would be the shot of adrenaline this team needed.
It looked like the answer for the first few minutes of the game. Carolina jumped out to a 10-4 lead in the first five minutes, but the little engine that could came to a screeching halt when shots stopped falling. Then it was back to hanging their heads and not playing defense, leading to a 22-34 halftime deficit.
McAdoo brought the 'Heels to within 10 on the first play of the second half. But they wouldn't score again for almost four minutes. From there, the game was pretty much on ice for the Orange.
Roy Williams was left slumped over on the bench, wondering what happened to the team that took out Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky. It was probably a familiar scene across the country on the couches of Tar Heel fans.
To this day, we're still wondering where that team went. Yes, maybe the Tar Heels caught those teams with their guards down. But there was a clear difference in the way they played in those games. They played with intensity and effort on the defensive end, which led to solid scoring and, ultimately, victories.
Maybe that team will come back one of these days. It's going to have to. The road through the ACC doesn't get any easier from here.