Several minutes remained at Comcast Center on Sunday night when the always-boisterous Maryland crowd began chanting "N-I-T! N-I-T!" at the defeated North Carolina players.
From the outset of the season, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams cautioned that expectations - and a top-six ranking in the preseason Associated Press poll - were way too high for the reigning national champions. But he never could have expected this.
Halfway through the ACC season, the Tar Heels are 2-6 in the conference (13-10 overall) - and on the brink of failing to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. It was never realistic to think this team had the talent or experience to repeat as national basketball champs, not with Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green playing in the NBA.
But with senior starters Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard returning to the lineup, sophomore forward Ed Davis seemingly poised to become UNC's next NBA lottery pick, and the third-ranked recruiting class in the nation joining the fold, a return to the NCAA field of 65 - with, perhaps, a run to the round of 16 if everything clicked - seemed within reach.
With eight regular-season games left, it doesn't get any easier.
The eighth-ranked Blue Devils are up next, on Wednesday night.
"If you lose six of eight, I don't know if playing Duke the next game is a good thing any way that you look at it," Williams, whose teams have won at least one game in the NCAA Tournament for the past 20 years, said Monday.
There are plenty of reasons for the Tar Heels' unexpected collapse: poor shooting and defense from the perimeter players; lack of toughness from post players; poor free-throw shooting (66.9 percent)and ball handling (last in the league in turnover margin, at minus-1.52); injury problems; a disconnect between what the coaches are trying to teach and what the Tar Heels have managed to learn.
But individually, most of North Carolina's players have failed to live up to their billing, too.
Expectations: Following two seasons as a starter in Hansbrough's shadow, Thompson was supposedly ready for his breakout year. He needed to consistently score in double figures, be tough on the boards and play well enough in the big man-dominated league to help make up for UNC's lack of experience on the perimeter.
Contributions: 23 starts, 14.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg. One of only two players to start every game, he remains UNC's leading scorer.
What's gone wrong: All too often, Thompson has allowed himself to be muscled out of the post, settling for jump shots instead of strong inside moves. When he does get on the block, his teammates have struggled to get him the ball in good position. As a result, he disappears for long stretches; Sunday marked the first time in three games he scored in double figures.
What's next: The Tar Heels have no power forwards in their next recruiting class, so it will be up to Tyler Zeller, the Wear twins and perhaps John Henson (if he slides to the post full time) to compete for Thompson's starting position. As for Thompson, NBA scouts considered him a second-round draft pick at the beginning of the season. A trip to the NIT won't help his cause.
Expectations: NBA analysts starting pitching the defense-oriented Davis as a first-round draft pick near the end of last season, so when he opted to return, folks figured he would replace Hansbrough as the team's star. He was even voted to the ACC preseason first team.
Contributions: 22 starts, 13.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg. Davis is a terrific defensive player, capable of changing opponents' shots with his blocking length and pulling down double-digit rebounds every game
What's gone wrong: No doubt, an ankle injury that forced him to miss the Wake Forest game last month slowed him, but he also has yet to develop the bulk, or offensive moves, that would make him a better low-post scorer. In conference play, he's fourth on the team in shots taken, a sign that he's not getting into position and his teammates aren't finding him.
The future: Davis remains the best forward on the team, and the Tar Heels need him to return to the starting lineup for his junior season in order to build back to NCAA Tournament form. The pro scouts still love his potential, however, so his decision will be key for UNC.
Expectations: After Ginyard redshirted last season with a foot injury, most fans figured he would fill the same role that David Noel did after the Tar Heels' 2005 national championship: leader, defender, scorer.
Contributions: Started 17 of 19 games, 8.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg. He had an explosive offensive start to the season, scoring double figures in six of his first eight games.
What's gone wrong: The fifth-year senior has struggled with injuries and confidence; his 17-point output at Maryland marked his first double-digit game since December. And he's not the same defender as in his first three seasons.
The future: While Ginyard's next career destination likely rests in Europe, Carolina has an influx of talent coming on the perimeter. Dexter Strickland, who has backed up Ginyard at shooting guard, will likely compete for the starting position with Kinston's Reggie Bullock, a five-star recruit.
Expectations: With 88.2 percent of its 3-point scoring gone from last year's squad, UNC considered Graves the team's best outside shooter. But after Graves was suspended for most of last season, most figured five-star freshman John Henson, a 6-foot-10 player trying to make the switch to small forward, would beat him out for the starting position early on.
Contributions: Started 21 of 22 games; 9.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 38 percent shooting on 3-pointers. Graves has been a pleasant surprise, showing good hustle and rebounding skills, and leading the team with 12.3 ppg in ACC play.
What's gone wrong: The fact that he's leading the team in scoring in ACC play. There have been times, such as his 24-point burst against Georgia Tech, when he's been UNC's best and most aggressive player on the court. That's a good thing for him, but not necessarily for the state of the team. Carolina lost that game because it didn't get enough from anyone else.
The future: Five-star wing Harrison Barnes - the top recruit in the country - should start at small forward next season, while Graves adds good perimeter depth from the bench.
LARRY DREW II
Sophomore point guard
Expectations: Everyone knew Drew didn't have the speed or experience of Lawson, last year's ACC Player of the Year. But the hope was that he could control the tempo, limit turnovers, hit the occasional outside shot and consistently feed the ball to the forwards.
Contributions: 23 starts, 6.2 apg, 3.2 tpg. When Drew has been aggressive - taking the ball all the way to the basket and looking for his shot - he has been at his best.
What's gone wrong: That aggressiveness hasn't appeared consistently enough. In UNC's 13 victories, he's averaging 10.7 points - and UNC's two starting big men averaged a combined 20.5 field-goal attempts per game. In UNC's 10 losses, Drew has averaged only 6.2 points, and Davis and Thompson combined for almost four fewer field-goal attempts - and nine fewer points - per game.
The future: Drew's inconsistency leaves the position wide open next season, and he will compete with incoming freshman Kendall Marshall, another five-star recruit, for minutes and the starting job.
Freshman combo guard
Expectations: A natural shooting guard, Strickland was asked to be the backup point guard this season because he was one of only three players with some ball handling experience on the team. The Tar Heels needed him to spell Drew and to contribute some points at shooting guard.
Contributions: Started four games at shooting guard, 5.9 ppg, 2.2 apg. The speediest perimeter player on the team, he's at his best when he's playing shooting guard - and driving to the hoop.
What's gone wrong: The switch to point guard was more challenging than expected for Strickland, who was still getting confused during workouts 52 practices into the season. He has had problems with turnovers from the outset.
The future: With Marshall coming in to play point guard next season, Strickland should be able to play off-guard full time. He'll compete for minutes with Bullock.
Expectations: The 6-foot-10 five-star recruit was projected to star at small forward, start from the outset and create instant matchup problems on the perimeter for teams with shorter small forwards. Analysts also considered him a one-year-and-done player.
Contributions: 10.9 mpg, 3.5 points, 2.3 rebounds. He has shown flashes of greatness, with acrobatic dunks, blocks and steals on out-of-bounds plays. He also posted a career-high 14-point performance at Virginia Tech last week - when he also played power forward for the first time.
What's gone wrong: Henson admits he had trouble learning the plays early on - and that it was harder adjusting to playing on the perimeter than he thought, especially when he couldn't consistently bury jump shots. Things got so bad that he found himself playing the closing minutes of at least one game with the walk-ons.
The future: Now that the one-and-done talk is over, the question is whether the 195-pounder will bulk up over the summer and play power forward full time or stick it out at the small forward position. With Barnes coming in to earn minutes at the "3," Henson likely has more of a chance at starting in the post next.
Expectations: After missing months of his freshman season because of a broken wrist, the 7-footer was ready to add height, depth and athleticism to one of the deepest frontcourts in the nation. A double-figure scoring average wasn't out of the question, considering his knack for getting fouled.
Contributions: 16 games played, 9.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg. When healthy, he brings a spark, and the ability to run the floor, off the bench.
What went wrong: Zeller fractured a bone in his right foot in mid-January, sidelining him for four to six weeks.
The future: Zeller should compete for a starting position next season; whether he wins it could depend on whether Davis returns and Henson moves to the post.
DAVID AND TRAVIS WEAR
Expectations: With so many tall guys on the roster, the identical twins figured to play limited minutes. If fans could tell them apart by the end of the season, that would be a plus.
Contributions: David (left, top), playing a lot at small forward, has started two games, averaging 2.9 points and 1.4 rebounds. Travis (left, bottom) has played mostly at power forward, starting one game and averaging 3.6 points and 2.6 rebounds. Henson's problems at small forward and injuries to Zeller and Davis at power forward have given the brothers a chance to develop.
What went wrong: The brothers have been pushed to the forefront more often than projected. The team had hoped to rely more on Henson and its more veteran forwards.
The future: The extra playing time this year means they'll be prepared to contribute more next year.
Expectations: Not as highly touted as Henson or Strickland, McDonald was the wild-card wing of this freshman group. With so few players on the perimeter, he had a chance to play - especially if he could hit shots.
Contributions: 21 games played, 9 mpg, 3.1 ppg, 1.5 rpg. He gained minutes by playing better defense but is usually the last guard off the bench in what has become 10-man rotation.
What went wrong: An offseason knee injury slowed McDonald in pickup games and in the weight room, and he never quite caught up.
The future: With three new perimeter players joining the fold next season, McDonald could see his minutes drop even more if he doesn't improve significantly during the offseason.
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