It’s late January and the national champions are talking about effort. That’s a sure sign they’re running out of time as champs.
After North Carolina’s 80-69 loss at Virginia Tech on Monday, coach Roy Williams questioned his team’s effort.
This has become a familiar refrain this season for the No. 10 Tar Heels (16-5, 5-3 ACC), who have lost three of their four ACC road games.
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And, while UNC is 4-0 at home in ACC play, Williams has voiced his concerns about lapses in effort by his team in wins, too. And, going back to before ACC play, after the shocking home loss to Wofford on Dec. 20.
“I used to say I shouldn’t have to coach effort and intensity but I’m trying to coach that and I’m not doing a very good job of it,” Williams said.
After the Virginia Tech game, Joel Berry, who finished with 23 points, was asked about Williams’ comments and the team’s effort problem.
“That’s a hard question,” Berry said. “I can’t answer that.”
Berry thought some more.
“I just don’t know the answer for it,” he said.
But Berry actually did have the answer for part of UNC’s problem on Monday night and, in the bigger picture, for this season.
“Sometimes it’s easy to get complacent after you win,” Berry said.
He was specifically talking about UNC’s four-game winning streak before Monday’s loss but think about that answer in another way.
What’s really so different for UNC this season?
There are obvious personnel differences but what about motivation?
The Tar Heels lost at the buzzer to Villanova in the 2016 national title game. “Redemption” was the theme for 2017, complete with regular group texts and pictures of Kris Jenkins’ championship winning shot on their cell phones as a constant reminder.
That team was galvanized by that loss and was driven, throughout the season, by it.
The confetti fell for them last year. They’re the champs. There is no catchy slogan or focus for this team but there is a target on them.
“We have to know that every team is going to come after us,” Berry said.
On the most basic level, this year’s Carolina team is not as dialed in as last year’s group. And it has cropped up at odd times.
Wofford has to be the first team ever to beat UNC but lose to UNC-Asheville and UNC-Greensboro in the same season.
Virginia Tech lost on the same floor to Virginia by 26 points on Jan. 3.
“They just came out like they needed that win,” Berry said.
Needed and wanted it more.
“They were into it more,” Williams said. “I thought their sense of urgency was much greater than ours.”
Which is why Williams was reduced to mad scientist midway through the second half when he sent out an unusual lineup of Jalek Felton, Andrew Platek, Brandon Robinson, Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley.
“I was trying to find something that worked,” Williams said.
What has worked for UNC, and usually at home, is when Theo Pinson, Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams support Berry and forward Luke Maye, who also had 23 points on Monday.
Pinson had eight assists but only took two shots against Virginia Tech. Kenny Williams was mired in foul trouble but he has lost his shooting stroke.
The junior guard started the season 24 of 44 (54.5 percent) from the 3-point line and has gone 14 of 53 since (26.4 percent), including an 0-for-4 effort on Monday.
Johnson, who had put together two strong games at home after struggling at Notre Dame, was out of sorts again with three points in 26 minutes.
“We have to stay together and try to change,” Pinson said.
It’s late January and the champs are talking about change. They’re running out of time to change.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio