Jones Angell didn’t expect to see a huge crowd of fans when the North Carolina team bus pulled up at the Smith Center early Thursday morning. The play-by-play broadcaster, of all people, should know by now that nothing with the Tar Heels has gone as expected this season.
“I was surprised at how large the number was considering how late it was,” Angell said. “It was probably 3:15 by then, but there had to be at least 200 students and band members. To have that large a number, that late, was a surprise.”
The welcome wagon was entirely deserved after Wednesday night’s win at No. 1 Michigan State, the latest wild swing for a team that has proven it can be one of the best teams in the country at times and play like one of the most mediocre at others.
It’s the kind of team that can make a coach, after what has to rank as one of the most unexpected and satisfying wins of his career, open his postgame press conference by saying, “I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know.”
Roy Williams can’t beat former player and assistant Jerod Haase, in his second season at UAB, but he can beat Tom Izzo for the seventh time with North Carolina, on land and sea?
If Williams doesn’t know, how’s anyone else supposed to know?
That’s just the way it has gone this year for the Tar Heels. Lose to Belmont. Beat Louisville. Lose to UAB. Beat Michigan State. Up. Down. Feast. Famine. Hot. Cold. High. Low. Cats. Dogs.
The uncertainty starts with the two players still in NCAA limbo a month into the season. Think Leslie McDonald would only miss a game or two? Seven games in, he’s still out. Think P.J. Hairston would be back by now, at least? No sign of him either. As long as their situations remain unsettled, the Tar Heels will remain unpredictable.
That’s just the beginning, but it’s the foundation for all the other inconsistencies. The absence of those two veteran guards has left the Tar Heels relying heavily on players who are less experienced, younger and, by nature, less predictable despite their talent. That has sent North Carolina down a path that is anything but smooth.
So combine the heavy minutes for freshman point guard Nate Britt and sophomore wing J.P. Tokoto with the continuing grab bag of young forwards – with James Michael McAdoo, despite his experience, as unpredictable as any of them – and the only player whose performance can be inked into the lineup at this point is Marcus Paige.
There’s no questioning the Tar Heels’ collective talent, but everything beyond that is an open question on any given night. Inconsistent execution is one thing. Inconsistent effort is another. When both are variable – and apparently random – it leaves coaches, players, analysts and fans baffled alike.
The Tar Heels could beat UNC Greensboro by 40 Saturday. Or they could lose by 10. Does anyone really know for sure? What about No. 3 Kentucky next Saturday? Or Texas four days after that?
The loss to Belmont at the Smith Center was one of the most disheartening imaginable, and yet, a mere 17 days later, there were fans outside the arena in the middle of the night to celebrate a win that was one of the most heartening imaginable.
It has been a wild ride for the Tar Heels without Hairston and McDonald, and as long as they remain out, it doesn’t figure to get any less turbulent. As Williams said, “I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know.”