The biggest shocker in college basketball this season continues to get stranger.
By this point, everyone knows that the North Carolina Tar Heels were not worthy of their lofty pre-season ranking. The defending national champions are a completely different team from last season, when Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson were leading the blue chippers to a dominant season and the second national championship in the past five seasons.
Still, this is Carolina.
I mean, did we go back into a time warp when Matt Doherty was coaching this team?
We all knew North Carolina would be experiencing growing pains, but this is getting ridiculous. The Tar Heels simply do not lose to the College of Charleston, they do not have a 2-4 record in the ACC, and they do not let what happened last Sunday happen.
Despite all the trials and tribulations of the season, last night was different. You could see it in the faces of the shocked Tar Heel Nation as they lacked the anger to even boo their lackluster team.
The North Carolina Tar Heels were taken to the woodshed by a team predicted to finish 11th in the ACC this season. A team that had won in Carolina a paltry six times in school history before last night.
The Tar Heels took on an old rival, a team with arguably two ACC-caliber players and a two-game losing streak, and were defeated soundly. In fact, they never even led.
Maybe this was not David and Goliath, but on paper, this was not even a contest.
So how does Roy Williams, a coach with a storied career of never losing, and a program synonymous with winning, come to a point like this?
Well, the answer is really a simple one.
In college basketball, it is still "team-first".
Granted, one-man teams can post great records and make the NCAA tournament. They just rarely win it all. Worse yet, when that player leaves, the team typically is left in a maelstrom of doubt and dissension for a period of time.
There is no "team" in Carolina basketball right now.
The assemblage of talent is playing just like that, a collection of stars who are young and used to winning without much effort or hard work. Every player on the roster seems more preoccupied with their statistics and draft status than their win-loss record.
As a result, this team has lost its ability to execute a coherent gameplan.
For instance, the Virginia frontcourt is probably the weakest in the ACC. Wake Forest did a good job of forcing the ball inside to Chas McFarland, who scored 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Virginia Tech also got the ball inside to J.T. Thompson after Jeff Allen was kicked out of the game. The bench player racked up 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
Do we see a pattern?
Well, Carolina has a surefire lottery pick in Ed Davis. The Benedictine grad picked the Tar Heels over Virginia and certainly would have wanted to add to Cavalier fans' misery Sunday night.
Instead, Davis scored four points in 21 minutes. Worse yet, the sophomore big man only had three shots the entire game. What that shows is a failure of a young team to exploit a weakness.
Granted, give credit to the Cavaliers for their hustle. They did a good job of denying the big men easy possessions, but when the Virginia front-court (outside of Mike Scott) boasts a walk-on, a former walk-on, and a 7'0" center who averages 0.5 PPG in the ACC, something is awry.
North Carolina should not be limited to 16 points in the paint. They certainly should not have a season-low 60 points at home. Worse yet, they allowed Virginia to score 30 points in the paint and shot 17 free throws in the second half.
That shows a lack of focus and hustle, something that head coach Roy Williams has been preaching since the conference season started.
Indeed, it is fascinating to watch Williams as he storms the court. He simply has never experienced a drought like this in his long and illustrious career. It has reached a point where exasperation is the only emotion left in him.
"I'm about as frustrated and disappointed as I've ever been in my entire life," Williams said to the press after the game. "I'm very fortunate to have some great moments, but this is definitely not one of them. We have to figure out a better way to get our kids focused on doing the things that we talk about. I've gotten awfully dumb in the last six months, is what someone told me, and in some ways it's true."
However, coaches simply do not forget how to coach. Williams is one of the greatest around and this is clearly a new challenge for him. How is he going to reach his players?
First, he has got to settle down Larry Drew II.
Now, being a point guard in the ACC is brutal, particularly if you're a sophomore who spent last season sitting behind Ty Lawson and only showing up in mop-up duty.
Still, when your counterpart, true freshman Jontel Evans of Virginia, schools you for six assists, there is a big problem. Granted, Drew picked up a team-high 15 points Sunday night, but a point guard needs to be a distributor as well.
When Drew is going 5-of-13, then North Carolina is one-dimensional. If they make their jump shots they are dangerous, but without an inside game, the Tar Heels are risking their postseason dreams on the young man's shooting ability.
11 assists to 17 turnovers simply does not translate into success.
Granted, it's not all Drew's fault, the big men need to demand the ball. Even if Davis is a sophomore and very talented, he needs to develop that angry streak. Davis has to play aggressively and take over the role of leader on this incredibly young team.
Speaking of leaders, Deon Thompson must also find consistency. The senior needs to be a safety valve for his guards, providing a quick fire option. Instead, his numbers have been rather sporadic.
After a 20-point explosion on the road against N.C. State, Thompson backed up that performance with a 2-of-7 outing, with four turnovers, against the Cavaliers. No doubt it was Thompson's worst performance since a four-point, five-turnover effort at Clemson.
Without these big men playing big in the ACC, this team is not going to go anywhere.
Despite the talent, North Carolina is struggling to get out of its own way.
Virginia is the antithesis of the Tar Heels this season. The Cavaliers have very little talent on the roster, but they feed off of each other, they work on every single play, and they play with something to prove to the world. It may not always be a pretty sight, but they will themselves to victory and are rarely out of a game.
The Tar Heels are loaded with talent and are carrying the heavy mantle of defending National Champions. They have the ability to go on runs and compete with just about anyone in the country, but their collection of talent is not a team.
Fortunately for them, losses can bring teams together. They can take that negative energy and turn it into a positive. It is that "us vs. them" mentality that turns programs around.
On the other hand, mounting losses can also deepen divisions and create friction in the locker room. For these young men, this is probably the first time in their basketball careers they have dealt with losing. In truth, most Carolina fans are not used to mediocrity, either.
Fans have kept waiting for the Tar Heels to respond to adversity, and, in February, they are still waiting. Is this all there is for North Carolina this season? If so, they will remember this loss against Virginia. It proved that overcoming obstacles is a "team" activity.
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