One of the reasons the postgame wrap-up was short was because there is really nothing constructive that can be written at a time like that. Hours later? That's a little easier. If I had to put a finger on the biggest problem fans had with this game it was the margin. A loss in this game should not have been a shock. It was a road game in ACC play. It was also UNC's third ACC game of the season which Roy Williams is now 3-6 in. I am not sure why that is or if it matters, but it sure is bizarre. Playing at FSU is historically tough for the Heels. Even 2009 needed a fair amount of miracle work to escape with a win. The same was true for the 2011 Heels after dominating FSU in Chapel Hill a month before. It was going to be a tough game at any rate so its not the loss but the margin that grates the most.
After the jump some questions and answers.
Where has the poise gone?
I see some have called this team "frontrunners" and complained they are not able to play while losing. The odd things is, this group did not seem to have that problem last season. During the first five ACC games UNC fell behind Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Miami by double digits in the first half. Three of those games came on the road and the Georgia Tech game was the only one in which the Heels did not mount a rally and ultimately win the game. In the other three games they flipped a switch and in reality won games they probably had no business winning. Add to those games the two match-ups vs Miami and Clemson in the ACC Tournament, you have a clear pattern of a team who defied the odds time and again. The point is this group was hailed last year as being exceptionally resilient and tough amid adversity. Now they get smacked in the mouth in a game and for some reason they are not able to pull together in the same way. One crucial difference could be UNC was growing up last season and operated with much less pressure than they are now. It is possible when UNC falls behind in these games there is a little more panic and a ton of pressure building to dig out of the hole in a hurry. That has led to an offense riddled with individual play over team effort which predictable results.
But wait, they really shouldn't be falling behind like this right?
Well that is the rub now isn't it? In 2011, falling behind in some games was not wholly unexpected and rallying to win was as though the Heels were playing with house money. This season the stakes are higher and the pressure to perform at a high level from opening tip to final horn is there. Of course there will be games where that doesn't happen and UNC being down eight at halftime was not a huge problem. In fact, I am sure most of us thought FSU would cool off, UNC would come out with a nice run to tighten the game up and away we would go. That didn't happen. It didn't happen by a long shot which brings is back to the first question of poise. It was there last year but this year is missing in a huge way.
Is there an issue with intensity and effort?
Since Roy Williams has said this group is not innately intense the answer to the first part is "possibly." The answer to the second depends on who you ask. I have made it clear that hesitate to call out players for effort and even intensity for that matter. The reason being is I am not in their heads nor can I totally trust observations made watching a game on television. It doesn't help when you see two Tar Heels clearly making an effort to get a rebound only to have it bounce just out of their reach to an FSU player who then scored because going for the rebound put said UNC players out of defensive position then have Dick Vitale says UNC wasn't hustling. I think there was a lot of that in this game. I think UNC was a little flat footed and maybe didn't fight as much as they needed to on screens or when pressed physically by FSU's defense. FSU's physical play was ultimately disruptive with a few potential fouls what went uncalled. This is a group of players who aren't really intense by nature who played a team that was totally amped up. UNC didn't match it but in most cases teams who come flying out the gate often cool off as the game goes on. That simply didn't happen here. Intensity and effort are certainly part of the equation but I am not convinced a majority of it.
So what in the name of Dean Smith was that?
It was just bad basketball pure and simple. Kendall Marshall played absolutely, without a doubt his worst game as a Tar Heel with six points, four assists and SEVEN turnovers. Harrison Barnes was 5-13, 1-4 from three and had five turnovers. John Henson was 5-10 but 0-7 from the line and committed a stupid technical foul. P.J. Hairston was 0-8 on all FGs and 0-7 from three contributing to UNC's rather putrid 4-21 from three and 37% from the floor. Tyler Zeller was the only player who seeming showed up with 14 points, 14 rebounds and 4 blocks. On the defensive side, stop me if you heard this before: UNC got shredded by the three point shot and had a player who sucked in the four games coming into this one turn in a career day. Yeah, I don't think it was the effort or the intensity so much as it was a really bad shooting game coupled with terrible defensive execution. If people want to make it about effort and intensity, be my guest but I have seen plenty of teams play with all the effort and intensity there little hearts can muster but still lose because shots didn't fall or the defense was just bad. Effort and intensity are low hanging fruits on the tree of fan reactions(and player answers to media questions) regardless of whether they fit or not. Why? Because it easier to rail against that than it is against aspects of the game which "just happen." At any rate, while I think UNC's effort and intensity didn't quite match FSU's it was not as crucial a factor in this game as some think it is.
Now we really find out what this team is made of and no, a win at Virginia Tech will not necessarily prove that. It will take a fairly sustained effort of several good wins playing quality basketball to bury this game. Roy Williams' UNC teams have never performed well during the early part of the ACC schedule. The only real concern with this game is the margin by which they lost which leads to a very interesting factoid. The biggest loss ever suffered by a NCAA title team in the seeded era is UNC in 1993. The Heels lost to Wake Forest by 26 in Winston-Salem three days after the now famous comeback against FSU. After losing to Wake(who was unranked at the time) UNC went to Durham and lost by 14 to Duke. That team suffered back-to-back losses by double digits in a year they ultimately won the national title. You can draw your own conclusions on how this loss to FSU compares to Wake Forest in 1993 or Georgia Tech a year ago(I think GT was worse because GT itself was a far worse team, but I digress.) The point is, UNC is not without some history in this regard and while the way this loss unfolded was certain as bad as it could be, it is also may not matter in two months the same way Georgia Tech didn't last year or Wake did even a month later when UNC beat the Deacs by 14 in Chapel Hill.
So you're saying there's a chance?
As much as anyone else has because, more than anything, I am convinced this team can put it together when it needs to. I know this loss stung and fans reacted as fans do. I also know that while Roy might say its on him, the message in the locker room was probably very different. I also think the least panicked people associated with all of this are the head coach and nine regulars on the roster. They are painfully aware of the epic nature of their failure and I don't think there is should be any concern about their efforts to fix it. This was a perfect storm of bad basketball and all the shooters playing poorly at the same time. If anything, it showed us that this team does not have a wide margin of error nor the consistency in its offensive weapons to endure a bad defensive outing. While the offense is much improved over last year, there are still lapses. In 2009, you had enough firepower to wear teams out, make big plays when needed or simply match an opposing team basket for basket. This team can do that but not nearly as consistently. When this team has offensive lapses and the defense is suspect, the possibility of things getting away in a hurry exists.
As to why a team which should be a Final Four contender would have such a problem is a mystery. The good news is there is plenty of time to fix it. While it is not debatable that Roy hates losing I also am convinced Roy knows how touse a loss to make his team better. This is not the "good loss" theory as much as it is the "make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what" mode of operation. This is also something that happens in parenting where you decide the best thing for the education of your child is to suffer the full consequences of some questionable choice. In this case and with this group of Tar Heels, tough love may be the best thing for them but again I do think this loss was about bad basketball more so than poor effort.
Either this game is an omen that UNC's season is heading off the rails leaving national title hopes largely unrealized or will be forgotten by the first weekend in April. I am still betting on the latter and you should too.