- Robbi Pickeral, College Basketball
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Only on three other occasions has North Carolina started the season 0-2 in the ACC:
In 1979-80, the Al-Wood-Mike-O’Koren-James-Worthy led Tar Heels lost at Virginia and Clemson before tying for second in the league (9-5), making the NCAA tournament and losing in the first game.
In 1996-97, the crew led by Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison actually fell to 0-3 in league play before tying for second in the regular season, winning the ACC tournament and making the Final Four.
And in 2008-09, Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green dropped their first two before winning the conference -- and the NCAA title.
No one is suggesting that this year's Tar Heels, who lost four starters to the NBA last summer but were still ranked in the top 15 to begin the season, are headed for the final weekend of March Madness. At this point, they barely look like an NCAA tournament team at all. But there is precedent for UNC (now 10-5, 0-2 ACC) turning things around.
The question is, after watching the team collapse down the stretch for the second straight game on Thursday night, do the Tar Heels have what it takes to rally?
“Everybody’s upset, everybody’s stressed, trying to figure out how we’re going to win games,’’ junior Reggie Bullock said. “But some way, somehow, real real soon, we’ll turn it around and get back on the right track.”
It’s the “some way” and “somehow” that are both concerning and disconcerting, because the Tar Heels keep making the same mistakes.
UNC trailed at Virginia 51-50 with 3:11 left on Sunday before the Cavaliers went on a game-securing 10-0 run. Against Miami on Thursday, the Tar Heels trailed 56-55 with five minutes to go before the Hurricanes clinched the game with an 8-0 breakaway.
Both collapses were defined by defensive lapses, communication breakdowns, rushed shots and a lack of poise.
Even after a players-only meeting following the Virginia loss, the same mistakes resurfaced against the Hurricanes.
“If I knew what it was I would have already changed it,’’ coach Roy Williams said when asked about the reason for the two meltdowns. “It's a smart aleck response, but it is also a true response.”
Indeed, when Williams asked his assistants, then his players, for the team’s main problem last Monday, everyone gave a different answer. And that grab bag continues.
Miami coach Jim Larranaga pointed to the Tar Heels’ lack of size: “In all the years that I coached against North Carolina, they were always bigger than us,’’ he said. “When I was at Virginia, even when we had Ralph Sampson, they had a ton of big guys. Last year when we came in here it was [Tyler] Zeller and [John] Henson, and they were huge. This year, they’re a little different.”
But as much as perimeter-oriented UNC has failed to display a consistent post presence -- what with the timeshare at center involving Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson -- there are plenty of other problems, too.
Like in the backcourt, where senior Dexter Strickland’s only stat in 26 minutes Thursday was a perplexing missed shot. Not what you want out of your starting shooting guard/backup point guard, especially when your starting ballhandler (Marcus Paige) is a freshman and still adjusting to pace and playing style.
Like on defense, where too much reticence is becoming the norm.
Strong leadership would help, too. Bullock, who called that team meeting, is trying to take over the emotional go-t0-guy role, and probably deserves it. But when games have gotten tight down the stretch, this still looks like a rudderless crew, panicking instead of looking for guidance.
And although sophomore James Michael McAdoo led the team in scoring against Miami with 14 points, they need more out the forward who would have been a first-round draft pick last summer. Over UNC’s past five games, three of which were losses, he’s made only 39.6 percent of his shots.
“I hate to lose,’’ McAdoo said. “And I really don’t know what to do but come every day ready to work and get better. And don’t leave the results up to the other team, but just impose my will and our will as a team.”
But can he? Can they?
Williams has seen, and experienced, turnarounds in years past, and remains positive that this team can follow that path. With only a short turnaround before facing Florida State in Tallahassee on Saturday, however, conference play doesn’t get any easier.
He said his team was stressed in the postgame locker room.
But he remains hopeful.
“Life's going to throw you some curve balls and adversity and if you're always worried, you're never going to get that changed,” he said. “I told them we're going to come back tomorrow and we're going to work our butts off and then we go to Florida State. And they're pretty doggone good. … We've got to go down there and regardless of our stress, regardless of our confidence, we've got to go play and we've got to do the best we can in practice tomorrow to see if we can get better."
Or else they might become only the second Tar Heels team to start league play 0-3.