North Carolina didn't expect to be in this position, and no one else expected the Tar Heels to be in it, either. Through two ACC games, the previously top-ranked Heels are tied for last place in conference standings.
The Heels' most recent outing was a deflating 92-89 loss at top-five Wake Forest on Sunday night in Winston-Salem. In and of itself, a loss on the road to an elite opponent wouldn't be a big deal. It was obvious during the early season that UNC's defense remains more of an annoyance than a genuine obstacle, and no team that defends so half-heartedly is going to dominate a league inhabited by good teams.
But is Carolina's defense truly half-hearted, or is this a case of mismatched personnel? Roy Williams has had several years to drill home the defensive principles to the team's key players, and yet even last weekend, after the stunning defeat to Boston College at home, his charges were unable to hold the Demon Deacons under 90 points.
It's actually difficult to fairly criticize the team's desire. While fans ponder openly whether this club has the proper chemistry or motivation to pursue greatness, the Heels did in fact out-rebound Wake 51-37 — always a key effort statistic.
That said, do the Heels possess the kind of perimeter quickness to stop dribble penetration? Specifically, in the defeats both Jeff Teague (Wake) and Tyrese Rice (BC) erupted for huge scoring outings and attacked the basket repeatedly.
In addition to its defensive struggles, Carolina also suffered through horrendous shooting performances from four starters. Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Deon Thompson combined to shoot 14-for-50 from the field for a woeful 28 percent. That the team came within three points despite its shooting and defensive issues is a testament to the courage and fight they've always displayed when facing deficits.
Danny Green seemingly was the only Tar Heel who maintained composure, keeping his club in the game by scoring 22 points (6-for-9 shooting) and adding six rebounds and five steals. The only other UNC player to hit at least half of his shots was Davis, who went 2-for-4.
But no one wants to hear that. The bottom line, as you've surely read, is that the Heels already have lost as many games this season as they lost throughout the entire regular season and ACC Tournament last year. It wasn't until the Kansas debacle in the Final Four that the club lost its third game. And this team has yet to play one of its two scheduled showdowns against Duke or against hard-charging Clemson.
So what's the problem? There is no clear reason that a team with essentially the same personnel — plus promising freshman big man Ed Davis — should regress from where it was a year ago given that the players have continued to compete full-tilt with the exception of the first half against BC.
Perhaps most puzzling and discouraging, this group of elite, experienced players has panicked during its only two tight games of the season. Prior to BC, no one had come closer than 15 points to defeating the Heels. When challenged, the same team that won numerous close games last season has come undone in bizarre fashion.
Panic overcame patience in both losses, magnified by truly horrid shot selection down the stretch in each contest. The Heels became three-point crazy prematurely against BC given the situation, and in what likely was the most ill-conceived shot of his career, Hansbrough launched an off-balance three-pointer against Wake with nearly two minutes remaining and the Heels trailing by only four points.
Wake was the inexperienced team playing on emotion. They were supposed to make that kind of mistake. But a senior, one who happens to be the school's all-time scoring leader, one of the program's most powerful and efficient players ever?
In fairness, the Heels are playing without their best defender in senior wing Marcus Ginyard. The plan was for Ginyard to return to the lineup at some point in early January for the remainder of the season, but he isn't healthy and didn't even dress in uniform against Wake. Williams has said that the team will sit Ginyard and continue to monitor his progress with the goal of getting him up to speed in time for the postseason.
Despite the disheartening turn of events, Williams also has been hesitant to direct venom at his team.
"I told the kids that during Tyler, Bobby (Frasor) and Danny's freshman year, we were 3-3 at one time (in the ACC) and ended up 12-4," Williams said. "It is a long season. I'm still looking at the big picture and know that we can get a lot better."
It's obvious that he perceives something other than effort to be a problem, and it's also quite possible that he's as confused about the deteriorating defense, ball-handling and shooting. This is the same team that early in the season destroyed Michigan State and Notre Dame, both of which presently are ranked in the national top 15.
UNC's next opportunity to win its first conference game will occur on Thursday night at Virginia, and on Saturday evening they'll return home to face Miami.
To see the box score from UNC/Wake, click here.