Luke Maye has been a North Carolina basketball player long enough to know what the mood is like when the Tar Heels lose a couple games. It doesn't happen often – not at all last season, once in 2016, twice in 2015 – but when it does, a miasma of despair, frustration and occasionally panic settles in over the town, the campus, the Smith Center.
“It's not good, especially when you have a coach like ours,” Maye said.
At the same time, being around this long gives players like Maye a sense of perspective about it. Losing at Florida State and Virginia wasn't ideal, particularly given the way the Tar Heels played in both games, the latter especially, but those were road games at top-25 programs and no one's winning those in the ACC this season, at least not so far.
So while there was certainly a mandate for the Tar Heels to play better against Boston College on Tuesday, something they achieved handily in a 96-66 win over the Eagles, it wasn't time to panic, either.
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“The positive thing is, we played terrible, we lost to Florida State by one,” Theo Pinson said. “We went into Virginia, I can't even remember who much we lost by. But we had a chance to win, that's the bottom line. We played bad and still had a chance to win. We just did everything we could tonight to try to turn the table back upward.”
Still, losing those two games forced a certain reckoning among the Tar Heels. Not only for individuals – and that included just about everyone beyond Joel Berry, who had been asked to do too much out of collective deference – but for Roy Williams, who got the push he needed to finally start his most effective, and smallest, lineup.
Pinson was one of several players who felt like he had something to prove Tuesday – “Personally, I've been playing terrible,” he said – bouncing back from a string of subpar games with only eight points but five assists and eight rebounds in a very active performance. Maye was another. Florida State and Virginia both had big bodies to bang against Maye, as did Wake Forest before them, and his performance suffered. Boston College had no such answer, and Maye scored eight of North Carolina's first 10 points on his way to a career-high 32 points and 18 rebounds.
Some of that could be attributed to Williams finally going small to start the game, inserting Cam Johnson into the lineup for freshman big man Garrison Brooks, a group that has not only been North Carolina's most dangerous lineup but also one that seems to play to Maye's strengths by forcing a center to guard him. Most of it had to do with the Eagles being ill-equipped to guard him; he does what a lot of their players do, only exponentially better.
Not that Boston College is lacking in players; the North Carolina duo of Jerome Robinson (Raleigh) and Ky Bowman (Havelock) is terrific, and they accounted for 36 of Boston College's 66 points. After several long years in the wilderness, the Eagles have the talent and mentality to beat anyone this season, and they proved that in December when they handed Duke its first loss.
That game was in Chestnut Hill, and it set the tone for the ACC season so far. Without a single dominant team, it's going to be one of those years where road wins are a precious commodity. North Carolina went 5-4 on its way to the No. 1 seed in the tournament last season; it's going to be hard for anyone to match that this time around, especially the teams that don't get a crack at a freebie in Pittsburgh. (North Carolina is one of the five.)
The Tar Heels' two losses were both on the road to good teams, NCAA tournament locks. Duke's lost twice to teams that may or may not make the tournament, both on the road. There have been three non-Pitt road wins among 22 non-Pitt ACC home games so far. There was certainly reason for concern over aspects of North Carolina's play, but not its record.
“We spent a lot of time on Florida State and Virginia both on the tape, showed them plays where we didn't have the heart or the brain, either one involved, so we needed to play better,” Williams said. “There's also no question a lot of people are going to struggle to win at Virginia and Florida State, so we had to make sure they didn't think the Titanic was going under.”
Williams noted that the Tar Heels lost at Virginia “maybe worse than we did the other day” last year and also lost in the state of Florida, at Miami, without denting their ambitions.
The key Tuesday was not letting two losses turn into three, but back at the Smith Center, with a renewed commitment to what the Tar Heels do best, it was never an issue, not from the first time Maye had the ball in his hands and certainly not at the end.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock