Is it going to go like this for the Tar Heels? Lose multiple games in a row and then come home and maul a lower-division conference opponent 96-66 (or 96-65) behind a big night by Luke Maye? At what point is the inflection point, if any, where progress begins? Everyone knows UNC is too talented and has too much experience to be as bad as they frequently are, so why, frequently, are they? This is really the question of the season in Chapel Hill, unless the team somehow gets so far past the inflection point that the Final Four becomes a legitimate subject.
It would be no surprise to discover that there’s an awful lot more going on behind the scenes than we might think, and the suspension of Jalek Felton does suggest distractions in practice and off the court that may have played a role in keeping players’ attention away from where it ought to be. But to speculate further would be inappropriate, not only because of how little we really know but also because it’s merely lascivious to be chasing after rumors about personal comportment. And it degrades the efforts of the team as a whole, the erratic quality of those efforts notwithstanding.
And also: it would be no surprise to discover that there isn’t much going on other than what we see. Here’s another reminder that college basketball players are kids. They have short attention spans, are prone to streaks and slumps, to chemistry and its lack. Carolina’s is a chimerical roster: two returning starters from a national championship team; a reserve from that team who is suddenly UNC’s best player; a junior coming off a season lost to injury, and a grad-student transfer who missed the season’s first several games with an injury of his own; and a bunch of freshmen, none really ready for consistent, heavy-duty Division I action. After UNC beat Pittsburgh on Saturday, Joel Berry issued what could be construed as a grow-up message to his younger teammates. It takes little acuity to see that Carolina’s interior presence is still very inconsistent and sometimes almost nonexistent, nor much more to see that Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley are getting better. The question is whether they’ll improve enough to keep UNC from beating itself and ending its season prematurely with bad three-point shooting in, say, a second-round NCAA tournament game.
Speaking of three-point shooting, the other question is: What has happened to UNC’s defense? Tar Heel Blog brought the data: Carolina is allowing not just a higher percentage of opponents’ scoring by the three-pointer in the Roy Williams era, they’re allowing a far higher percentage. Is it poor effort, communication? Some of both, surely. Last Tuesday’s game-deciding three-pointer, for example, by Clemson’s Marcquise [sic] Reed was enabled by Kenny Williams getting buried on a screen and no one rotating. But it’s also tempting to say that UNC has also been a victim of an unusual amount of bad luck. No one ever expects a team to make 15 straight shots, as Clemson did in Chapel Hill two weeks earlier. No one ever expects a guy with a 33 percent three-point rate to make all seven in a game, as N.C. State’s Allerik Freeman did against Carolina a little over a week ago. When Pittsburgh came out bowling strikes on Saturday — the Panthers made eight of their first 13 attempts, I believe — the collective groans must have been very loud: here we go again. But after that, they fell way off and shot themselves out of the game.
And that is the game, at least for Carolina: three-pointers, making them and defending them. They’ll need both on Thursday against big-and-tall Duke, whose lottery-pick front line will likely keep Brooks and Manley from doing much damage.
Meanwhile, Duke will be out to repair theirs. The Blue Devils’ loss to St. John’s on Saturday was not quite as inexplicable and dismal as UNC’s to Wofford (to repeat: at home!) in December, but it was Duke’s version of the same thing. It grounded a cruising ship — the loss to Virginia was no great deflation — and caused Mike Krzyzewski to use words like “disgusting” and “unacceptable” afterward. A classic frosh failure, and it torpedoed Duke’s gradual hard-won improvement in defensive efficiency metrics. But the loss could help the Blue Devils, who still have the ceiling of a national champion. It was a reminder that there are teams like St. John’s all over the NCAA, lying in wait at tournament time and ready to ambush unsuspecting bluebloods. That indeed is the very point of the tournament, and St. John’s gave Duke fair warning well ahead of time.
There is not really as much left as there seems, though. The first Duke-UNC game of the season always feels like the halfway point of the conference schedule, but one of the numerous quirks in 2017-18 — including the Blue Devils playing Wake Forest and Pittsburgh four times in a five-game span — is that only half a dozen games remain before the Duke-UNC rematch at regular season’s end. When this first game is done, both teams will look up just in time for weekend hangover games (UNC has to go to Raleigh and deal with N.C. State again, and Duke had better be on its toes at Georgia Tech, with its tricky defenses). After that it’s a quick chute to the end. In other words, it seems to be happening, suddenly, very fast. Buckle up.