I read and heard it already: Many a seasoned sports analyst and novice fair-weather fan has written North Carolina’s obituary—halfway through the conference schedule.
Sure, it is definitely unreasonable to expect the Tar Heels (13-10, 2-6 ACC) to match last year’s results or even post a winning conference schedule for NCAA Tournament consideration.
However, it is just as foolhardy to renounce the Heels to a has-been program destined for a long-term losing streak, as so many college basketball enthusiasts have prematurely done.
Most knowledgeable fans expected the defending national champions to have a rebuilding year after losing almost all of its talent to graduation and/or the NBA. The Tar Heels would undoubtedly struggle, but this is North Carolina—the historic college basketball juggernaut—even more so under Roy Williams' tenure.
UNC will most certainly miss out on the NCAA Tournament—the first time since 2002—and more significantly, a Williams-coached team will be on the receiving end of this fate for the first time in 20 years. It will likely be only the second time in Williams’ coaching career, the other being the 1988-89 Kansas team.
Hardly anyone anticipated how quickly and greatly UNC's downward spiral would occur. After all, this was a team once ranked as high as No. 6 this season with promising early season wins to boot. Yet, since conference play began, the Heels demise has been more pronounced and rapid, plummeting out of the Top 25 rankings and losing at home as often as on the road.
The level of play in the ACC is fairer this year than before, which contributes to the hurdle the young Tar Heels face in implementing teamwork in games. Still, technical weaknesses such as perimeter shooting and spotty defense aside, North Carolina’s greatest downfall is still lack of cohesive teamwork.
This year’s squad has experienced a much more strenuous time meshing, which has led to a conspicuously fragile mentality on court and an overly fluctuating level of intensity—appearing excited and focused in one game, then completely unmotivated and flat the next.
For Tar Heels fans, this lack of consistent unity and motivation is what drives them to despair—not the frequency of the losses. So far, the all-important question of how and why UNC keeps losing still remains unanswered.
The shortcomings in their game and their consequent losses have put a double-bind on the Heels, as each continues to feed on the other. The result? A deepening degradation of confidence that has translated to the most important figure of all: the coach.
In a recent radio interview, Williams acknowledged that this season’s trials and tribulations have shaken his confidence—his worth to the team and ability.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d struggle like we are right now,” he said.
Williams has chosen to take the brunt of the blame and also added that the biggest disappointment has been his failure to motivate his players. As previously mentioned in this story and earlier articles, this year’s team lacks fire and determination. The problem for the Heels is a mental game, not a physical one. Right now, that frail mental game is acting as a buffer and prohibiting intense effort shown on the court.
Injuries have also plagued North Carolina throughout the season, with Tyler Zeller being out for almost a month and Marcus Ginyard and Ed Davis missing time with their own problems.
These injuries have sapped the Heels of any roster depth they may have possessed. Instead, UNC’s roster is running thin, with more than one player forced into play before actual readiness, such as Dexter Strickland.
With time and experience, these same players should mature and develop to form a fearsome team.
The Heels will lose Ginyard and Deon Thompson to graduation, and Ed Davis is likely to turn pro after the school year, but they will gain the nation’s No. 2 recruit, Harrison Barnes. Although his admittance does not automatically signal a return to top form, UNC does have players who have the potential to reach the level of teams past.
After all, Williams has guided the 1991 Kansas Jayhawks—a team with only one NBA draft pick in Mark Randall—and the 1993 Jayhawks, a similar team with Rex Walters—to the Final Four.
More recent history points to a brighter future too, as UNC went head-to-head and competed well against Texas and Kentucky earlier in the season.
Although it is unclear when exactly the Tar Heels will recover from this slump, time is on their side.
What is clear is that the season’s drawbacks and subsequent losses have compounded matters and created a complex web of mind games in the players, the coaching staff, and Tar Heels fans.
Stripping off this doubt and self-questioning is the most demanding but most momentous hurdle North Carolina needs to overcome before a return to better days.
Once accomplished, the glory of victory is sure to follow.