CHAPEL HILL — It’s close, yet the real postseason, at least the kind that most motivates Tar Heels coach Mike Fox and his players, isn’t quite here yet.
The start of the NCAA tournament next week will bring a sense of rejuvenation, Fox said Monday. Days before their ACC tournament opener, though, Fox wasn’t yet feeling the sense of rebirth that comes with a new season.
He was hoping, instead, that the ACC tournament will prepare his team for what’s ahead, and that during the next few days in Durham the Tar Heels would begin to start playing like they were back when they made winning look easy during a school-best 39-2 start.
“I think it’s important we get a little bit of our mojo back,” said Fox, whose top-seeded Tar Heels play No. 8 seed Miami at 3 p.m. Thursday. “A little bit of our swagger that we had when you’re winning games and you expect to win and there’s no doubt.”
UNC had that for a while. The Tar Heels started 16-0. After their first loss, they won nine more consecutive games, and then 14 more in a row after their second defeat.
Fox knew it wouldn’t last – that such success couldn’t last.
“I think 39-2 is just way off the chart – just like an aberration,” he said.
Late in the season, though, the pendulum swung the other way. The Tar Heels are 7-4 in May. They enter the ACC tournament having lost their past two weekend series, the first at Georgia Tech and the most recent last weekend at home against Virginia.
After losing two out of three games against the Yellow Jackets, UNC for the first time all season dropped out of the No. 1 ranking in all of the national polls. Then, against the Cavaliers, the Heels’ usually-reliable pitching and defense let them down.
Kent Emanuel, UNC’s junior left-hander who was named the ACC Pitcher of the Year, struggled in the first defeat against Virginia. In the second defeat, Colin Moran, the ACC Player of the Year, committed a costly error that allowed the Cavaliers to score the game-winning runs in the 11th inning.
“It’s just baseball,” Moran, the nation’s leader in RBIs, said of UNC’s recent struggles. “When you’re 39-2, you’re not going to do that all year. You’re going to have a (difficult) stretch and I think it’ll be good for the freshmen to learn from that, and going into the postseason I think it’ll be good for the team.”
The Tar Heels rebounded with a victory against Atlantic Division champion Florida State to close the regular season Monday, but after that game Fox was still upset with a defensive blunder that led to a run. Part of UNC’s recent struggles can be attributed to the increased level of competition the Heels have faced, but another part has been self-inflicted.
Fox is hoping for cleaner performances, starting Thursday against Miami.
“The (ACC) tournament is what it is for us, but for me, I want to go over and play a little bit better, a little more fundamentally-sound baseball and make better decisions and make plays and move the ball and those types of things,” he said.
Those are the types of things his team did extremely well until recently. Even so, he’s likely glad the difficult stretch he envisioned came now instead of later, when an error might not mean just a loss – but a season-ending loss.
There were times, earlier this season, when Fox worried because the Tar Heels were making it look too easy. Now they know the value of victories, and how at times how difficult they are to come by.
“Coach Fox was talking about how it was almost scary, the start we were having,” said Emanuel, who will start today against the Hurricanes. “He said our team made it look too easy. It wasn’t supposed to be this easy. And I think there was some truth to that.
“I think having a rough stretch like this is a good thing. It’s just going to help our team stay grounded and work.”
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter