Toss out your theories for why North Carolina didn’t seem all that fired up for its home opener. Maybe the Tar Heels relaxed after a solid win over Temple to start the season. Perhaps the absence of John Edwards and a giant bucket of popcorn from his usual spot in the stands above their tunnel led them astray Sunday.
“We were all so excited about the football win yesterday, maybe we had that glory in our heads instead of going out there and playing,” coach Roy Williams said.
Either way, it was one of those early-season 27-point wins where Williams was genuinely disappointed with the performance afterward. You can set your calendar by them.
All those old demons were there: defensive indifference, offensive indecision, missed free throws, getting outworked on the boards, up by only single digits on Fairfield with 12 minutes to play before pulling away for a 92-65 win, turning it on late after stumbling through the first half.
“That’s the thing we’ve always had problems with,” said Nate Britt, who tied a career high with 17 points. “That’s something we want to get better with this year. Our first game we did a good job of coming out with intensity. We just didn’t do it today. Being consistent with that is a key.”
This was more than a little surprising with this team, veteran and loaded with talent, even with Marcus Paige watching from the bench in a suit with his hand in a cast. These Tar Heels had presumably learned all these lessons in years past and would not get caught relaxing after a solid opening win over Temple.
And yet here they were, deep into the second half, struggling to gain any separation with a Fairfield team that lost by 13 to Yale. Either way, it was a disturbing recurrence of what seem to be annual November issues for the Tar Heels, no matter how talented, no matter how experienced, no matter how many times they have been through this sort of thing before.
“We came out a little slow in the first half and then the first five minutes of the second half,” Joel Berry said. “Coach wasn’t worried about that, it’s just that he wants us to play hard. That’s all he wants. In the last 15 minutes, you could see we kind of took the lead and brought it out a little bit, just because we gave a little effort. That’s all he was worried about.”
It was certainly a night where Paige would have helped settle things down, especially with Fairfield sitting back in a zone and daring Britt and Berry and Justin Jackson to shoot, but the Tar Heels can’t just muddle through the next few weeks until Paige is ready to return.
“I expect we’ll see a lot (of zone) unless it’s a stubborn coach like me,” Williams said.
Wofford is next, on Wednesday, an NCAA tournament team a year ago that nearly knocked off Arkansas to face the Tar Heels in the second round. Then at Northern Iowa, another NCAA tournament team, in what was supposed to be Paige’s homecoming game. Then Northwestern and either Kansas State or Missouri in Kansas City, a de facto road game. And then Maryland in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, as tough a game as the Tar Heels will play until the ACC season begins.
There are more difficult opponents ahead, but for most of the evening Sunday it was far too close for an anxious Smith Center crowd that will continue to expect perfection from this team and probably isn’t wrong.
Still, as disappointed as Williams was, there was an unusually sanguine undertone to his anger, tangibly different from seasons previous.
“I’m concerned about the way we played tonight,” Williams said, “but I’m not worried about our team.”
That may be the biggest difference between what happened Sunday and what happened in the recent past: The failings may have been the same, but the confidence in this team’s ability to shake them off is new.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock