UNC headed in the wrong direction halfway through ACC play

It’s not last year.

If North Carolina didn’t realize that before Saturday, the Tar Heels do now.

A 51-point home win (107-56) over N.C. State turned into a four-point home loss (95-91 in overtime) to the Wolfpack on Saturday.

It took an extraordinary effort from the 3-point line for N.C. State to pull off the upset, but the difference from year-to-year is startling.

And not just the margin. The first ACC home loss leaves the 10th-ranked Tar Heels (16-6) at 5-4 in conference play halfway through the league schedule. That’s as many conference games as UNC lost all of last year in winning the regular-season title.

Roy Williams, who lost for only the fourth time in 31 games in the series, knew there would be a transition this season, with so many changes to the roster after winning the 2017 national title. Star wing Justin Jackson and big man Tony Bradley left early for the NBA, forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks graduated, leaving a hole in the interior, in particular.

UNC made the turn in ACC play at 7-2 last year. Williams didn’t see a 5-4 ACC start coming.

“I just want us to play better,” Williams said. “That’s my whole thing.”

The Tar Heels did on the offensive end on Saturday, particularly senior wing Theo Pinson, who responded from Monday’s four-point, passive outing in a loss at Virginia Tech. Pinson turned in a career game with 22 points and 15 rebounds.

Forward Luke Maye, who led all scorers with 31 points, was really good, too. Even freshman forward Garrison Brooks (eight points) and freshman guard Andrew Platek (five points) chipped in some valuable first-half minutes off the bench.

But guards Joel Berry (3-12, six points) and Kenny Williams (four points) both struggled. And that’s the problem with this UNC team. There is no margin of error.

When the five starters aren’t all clicking, they’re not winning. And they haven’t been able to get all five starters really going — other than the home Boston College win on Jan. 9 — often.

Defensively, UNC was not good. It has had continual problems with 3-point shooters this season and did again on Saturday. No one had ever gone 7-for-7 from the 3-point line in the Smith Center until N.C. State’s Allerik Freeman did.

And UNC no answer for N.C. State big man Omer Yurtseven (16 points, 13 rebounds). Yurtseven’s real value in the middle of the floor could be seen in all the open 3s he helped set up for N.C. State’s shooters. The Wolfpack finished 15 of 30 from the 3-point line (compared to 4 of 19 for UNC).

“They made shots,” said Pinson, explaining the difference between this year’s game with the Wolfpack and last year’s.

“Last year, they didn’t make any shots and we made everything. That’s the difference, bottom line.”

Maybe but the year-to-year math paints an ugly picture. And here’s another point of comparison: N.C. State, which opened ACC play with a 16-point loss at Clemson and a 30-point loss at Notre Dame, is improving. The Wolfpack has won five of seven in league play, including two this week on the road.

“Their club has gotten better and better as the season has gone along,” Williams said.

Normally, that’s a trademark of the Tar Heels under Williams. But UNC’s best games this year arguably came in the “PK80” tournament in Portland in November. UNC started the season 10-1 and have gone just 6-5 in the past 11 games.

“There’s nothing we can do about the games that are already played,” Johnson said. “What we need to do is move on.

“It’s just a little bit of adversity right now. We just have to stay composed and keep pushing and keep getting better.”

Handling a hiccup, or two, was easier for last year’s veteran group. If Saturday’s game crystallized anything, it’s not last year any more.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio