CHAPEL HILL — Not long ago Roy Williams agreed with the notion that his current North Carolina team had been the most unpredictable of 11 years as Tar Heels coach.
Since then, the Tar Heels have become more and more predictable though not in the way Williams and his players had hoped.
With every game, it seems, the Tar Heels put more distance between themselves and those brilliant early victories against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky that, for a while, made UNC one of the most pleasantly surprising teams in the nation.
Now, after losing four of their first five ACC games, the Tar Heels seem stuck in a disappointing and familiar pattern. In each ACC loss, UNC has been doomed by the same set of circumstances: poor shooting; an inability to capitalize on second-chance scoring opportunities; a failure to get to the free throw line as often as Williams prefers and a lack of effort and hustle.
Williams and his players have spoken often about the need to play harder and with more toughness, but a lack of effort appeared to be the least of UNCs problems Monday night during a 76-61 loss at Virginia. That defeat, again, left UNC humbled, and left Williams and his team searching for solutions they hope exist.
After that game, junior forward James Michael McAdoo said Williams is just searching.
I feel like thats definitely been tough on him, McAdoo said. Especially when he sees us play so phenomenal in certain games, and then play like we do in other games. So I know thats frustrating for him. But hes our coach. He loves us to death. And were so grateful to God that we have him.
We just want to make coach happy. Thats all we want to do.
Williams has been happy enough to dance at times this season. He did that in the Tar Heels locker room, along with his jubilant players, after they defeated then-No. 3 Louisville and then-No. 1 Michigan State.
There have been few reasons for celebration lately. UNCs loss at Syracuse prompted McAdoo and sophomore guard Marcus Paige to attempt to inspire team-wide change. McAdoo and Paige, the Tar Heels captains, spoke to teammates about giving more effort and listening to Williams.
A victory against Boston College followed. UNCs offense thrived against the Eagles defense, which statistically is among the worst in the ACC. When the Tar Heels traveled to Virginia on Monday night, the same familiar problems emerged. UNC shot 41.3 percent and attempted 12 free throws.
In their four ACC losses, the Tar Heels have shot a combined 37.3 percent. They have attempted an average of 13 free throws in those games a little less than half of the 27 theyve averaged this season. More than anything, perhaps, those two failures have played the largest role in UNCs 1-4 start in conference play.
Williams made a point Monday night to say his teams lack of free throw attempts cant be blamed on officiating. He blamed his players.
You need to finish the play, he said. And instead of worrying about being fouled and shying away from it, youve got to be strong going to the basket.
He spoke similarly about his teams inability to turn offensive rebounds into points. The Tar Heels continue to be one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation they rank 25th and third in the ACC in offensive rebounding percentage (37.9) but capitalizing has been a frustrating venture.
At halftime against Virginia, for instance, UNC had nine offensive rebounds but only four second-chance points. The Cavaliers had scored nine second-chance points off four offensive rebounds.
I dont have an answer, Williams said. If I did, I would have tried to have already fixed it. But (weve) got to be more attentive to finish the play instead of worrying about getting fouled.
Tyler Hansbrough was the best Ive ever seen, (and) had more old-fashioned three-point plays than anybody because when he got the ball he was finishing the play and then started to run back down the court and realized the referee had blown the whistle and called a foul.
The question now is whether UNC can reverse several troubling trends in time to turn around its season. Since the start of ACC play, the Tar Heels have struggled to shoot effectively against good defensive teams, and UNC will face Clemson on Sunday at the Smith Center. Clemson is one of the best defensive teams in the nation.
The Tigers endured an ugly 76-43 loss at Pittsburgh on Tuesday night but still rank fifth nationally in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 37.2 percent shooting. The Tar Heels have already faced Wake Forest, Miami, Syracuse and Virginia all of which hold opponents to less than 41.5 percent shooting and UNC fared poorly against all of them.
The loss at Virginia, again, had the Tar Heels wondering which direction theyre headed and how to rescue a season that at one point appeared so promising. Their 1-4 start in the ACC is UNCs worst since 2002, when it finished 8-20, and no other team in school history lost four of its first five ACC games.
This is going to be the week where you really find out how tough this team is mentally, Paige said. I think were strong enough to handle it and bounce back, but this is going to be the point right here.
We have a couple of winnable games coming up we have to take advantage of if we want our season to go in the direction that we want it to.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter