CHAPEL HILL — When North Carolina began its ACC basketball season 0-2 a year ago, there was little doubt the Tar Heels could dig out of their hole. With Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green, they had a veteran roster that knew how to win. And did.
Sitting at 1-3 in the league now, however, their future isn't quite so clear.
Not only is UNC (12-7) in danger of earning a low seed in the NCAA Tournament if it doesn't get its act together, it faces the prospect of not even making the 65-team field for the first time in the Roy Williams era.
That idea seemed ludicrous at the beginning of the season, with two players with starting experience returning from last year's national title team, plus the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation joining the squad.
But the Tar Heels have lost three in a row for the first time since 2002-03, coach Matt Doherty's final season and the last time they didn't make the NCAA field. They have posted three of the six worst margins of defeat in the Williams era at UNC. They have yet to win a true road game. And judging by UNC's lack of defense, rebounding, shooting touch and cohesion during its 82-69 loss against Wake Forest on Wednesday, the team seems to be regressing.
"It's just unfamiliar," senior Deon Thompson said. "I think this season, if you combine all my losses for the past year, I'm about to pass that. ... Around here, winning is the only thing, so we know that we need to find a way to put some W's on that side of the column."
Or else. To earn an at-large NCAA berth, the Tar Heels likely have to finish the league regular season 7-9, at least. Only seven ACC teams that finished with a sub-.500 league regular-season record have earned an at-large berth since the conference schedule expanded to 16 games in 1992. Only one - Florida State in 1998 - was 6-10.
Winning now is important. Not only will it boost UNC's RPI ranking (51, according to Collegerpi.com, before the loss to the Demon Deacons) and confidence, but the schedule only gets harder after Tuesday's game at N.C. State, a matchup that looks tougher following the Wolfpack's win over Duke.
Other keys to making the tournament:
Listen to the coach. Williams often preaches that he doesn't like his team to take a corner 3-pointer off an inbounds play. But UNC did it Wednesday night - and missed. It's a small thing, but it's indicative of a bigger problem: the team still isn't doing in games what he's trying to teach them in practice. That ranges from point guards forgetting to go into the backcourt to get the ball on an inbounds play (vs. Georgia Tech) to the big men failing to get into position in the lane (at Clemson).
Get more aggressive play from the guards. No one expected starting point guard Larry Drew II to be another Lawson. But by now, fans expected a bit more consistency out of the sophomore. In the past three losses, he has made only eight of his 24 shots. And while he has dished out 20 assists, he has committed 14 turnovers. Perhaps still the most frustrating part his game: Instead of taking the ball all the way to the basket, he tends to pull up a couple of feet short, passing instead of finishing plays.
In addition, backup ballhandler Dexter Strickland, who had been showing an ability to get to the hoop, has disappeared the past two games, making only one of his past nine shots. And Marcus Ginyard, the starting shooting guard who can play point in a pinch, hasn't been the same since he returned from his sprained ankle; he's made only ix of 20 shots in four ACC games.
Show more toughness in the lane. The Tar Heels were hurt Wednesday because starting forward Ed Davis was out with a sprained left ankle. But their starting post players were out-rebounded by Wake's starting forwards 21-9, something that shouldn't happen if they're playing strong. Williams wants his big guys to fight for better position in the post - and their teammates need to find them there, too, rather than settling for outside shots. That means standing their ground in the lane - and being willing to bruise, and get bruised.
Find the right combinations. That's been difficult because six Tar Heels have missed at least one game because of injury. But Williams also hasn't found a consistent rotation because he hasn't found much consistency on or off the bench.
Asked about his confidence level in this team, Williams - who has had only two other teams (both at Kansas) lose at least three in a row, said: "My confidence level is I'm going to work. I don't give a darn about what's going on; I'm going to coach my rear end off tomorrow, and it's up to them [the players] to come along with me."
Or else they might not end up where they want to go in the postseason.
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