When North Carolina defeated UNLV at home just before the new year, the Tar Heels evinced a newfound toughness and defensive zeal. Those traits had been absent during the team’s three prior defeats, and many speculated that perhaps they’d begun to turn the corner.
But UNC’s first ACC contest, a 61-52 defeat at Virginia, invoked painful memories both from this season and from the 2009-2010, NIT-bound disaster.
Carolina fell to 10-4 and will continue to face far better opponents during conference play than they mostly did during the non-conference slate. In order to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament — as Thad Williamson referenced in his column last week — the Heels likely will need to finish among the ACC top four or five squads. To do that, they’ll need to win at least 10 out of their 18 conference games.
And to accomplish that, they likely must salvage a 3-3 record through their first six ACC games. Three will take place at home—Miami, Georgia Tech and Maryland—where the Heels have performed well. Like Virginia, Florida State appears to be vulnerable even in Tallahassee, and then N.C. State will host UNC to close the six-game stretch.
So while Sunday night’s second half collapse ushered in new levels of anxiety and anger within the fanbase, Virginia represented a missed opportunity more than it did an outright calamity.
The Heels can achieve a par during this challenging series while winning only their home games.
They’ll have to break through on the road eventually—and likely more than once, unless they can fend off Duke, State and everyone else in Chapel Hill—but Boston College, Georgia Tech and Clemson all appear beatable on the road, along with the Seminoles.
Still, Roy Williams sounded despondent during the postgame press conference. Perhaps the UNLV victory fooled him a little, too, and now this team’s ceiling appears to be lower than it did even after the first couple defeats. Making lineup or system changes at this stage carries increasing risk, and the club’s numerous deficiencies appear to becoming entrenched.
The starting backcourt doesn’t appear ACC-viable. I’ve written repeatedly this season that guards Marcus Paige and Dexter Strickland simply don’t complement each other effectively, and that Carolina would benefit if they split playing time at point guard rather than share minutes.
Versus the Cavaliers, Paige and Strickland combined for six points in 56 minutes. They shot 3-for-14 from the field and dished out only five total assists. Their struggles alone point to a need for revitalization, and most by now believe greater minutes for wing P.J. Hairston—who admittedly didn’t shoot well versus UVa, but still did amass eight points and five rebounds in 22 minutes—would instill greater scoring balance.
James Michael McAdoo continues to search for a home in Carolina’s offense, but Williams appears to have fewer options in the frontcourt. Forward Brice Johnson has been UNC’s most effective freshman, but he’s very thin and can be bullied by stronger opponents. Part-time starter Desmond Hubert has improved defensively but doesn’t contribute as a scorer, shooting twice during his 19 minutes last night.
If this team rounds into shape, the perimeter battery will be the reason. Reggie Bullock played at an all-ACC level against the Cavaliers, leading the team with 22 points on 7-for-9 shooting. Bullock and Hairston combined with either Paige or Strickland at point guard would give the Heels a fighting chance.
Carolina returns home to face Miami on Thursday. All home games will be critical, and the Heels certainly can’t afford to fall to 0-2 and lose their first conference tilt in Chapel Hill. Click here to view the UNC/UVa box score.