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I Still Don't Know What Happened Last Night

Gregory Shamus

Remember Sunday?

UNC lost to UAB on Sunday. They lost on the road to a team that might finish third in Conference USA and did so because the effort was largely lackluster. North Carolina played as poorly as they could have and paid the price a loss to a mid-major a week after knocking off #3 Louisville. That win was immediately declared a fluke. The norm was defined as missing 26 free throws versus Belmont or shooting poorly against Holy Cross or getting chased off the boards by UAB. Conclusions were drawn and they mostly fell in the "holy crap this going to be a long season" category. There was plenty of evidence to render a verdict and it wasn't pretty.

It was also dead wrong. It wasn't wrong because this team is better than losses to UAB and Belmont indicate nor are they as good as wins over Louisville and Michigan State would have you believe. Everyone was wrong because this team apparently defies prediction: good or bad. They are the very definition of random in a way that completely messes with hot sports takes and even statistical analysis. The social media world we live in demands quick opinions and hasty judgments of teams, people, events at the moment of their relevance. Nobody has time for long view analysis or to wait for enough data to draw any sort of educated conclusion. Nope, we need to judge this team right now based on the thing we just saw which is why UNC has gone back and forth between being called an NCAA or NIT team five times in seven games.

The worst thing imaginable for the "hot sports take" world is a team that refuses to follow any rules of convention. Teams that miss 26 free throws and lose to Belmont don't knock off defending national champions. Teams that get outrebounded 52-37 in losing to a Conference USA team don't outrebound Tom Izzo teams known for rebounding and tough defense on the way to a fourteen point win. Teams that are 5-2, playing without two key perimeter players and just one player accounting for 19 of 22 made threes shouldn't be 8th in the KenPom rankings and one of only four teams to be in the top twenty in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Everyone keeps putting a label on this team and UNC keeps, for better and worse, ripping it off.

In other words, it's totally insane, frightening and possibly a lot of fun all at the same time not unlike a roller coaster except on a roller coaster you have an inkling of what's coming next. Not so with this team.

Tar Heel fans are generally used to two kinds of seasons. Most of the time it's a Final Four contender team which will challenge for ACC supremacy and make a good NCAA Tournament run. That's both a blessing because everyone likes winning and a curse because even wins are criticized for perceived flaws that will derail a title run. Then there are teams that operate with slightly lower expectations. The 2006, 2010 and 2013 teams certainly come to mind here. It is accepted those teams won't go to the Final Four but the hope is they can do something to make the season memorable whether it be knock off Duke or make a run to the ACC Championship. There is always an expectation UNC will contend for an NCAA title but even if reality makes that impossible, there is still things to be gleaned from a "down" season.

This season is neither of those. The suspensions of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald have taken this team "off the board" in terms of being able to predict what this team can do. It is uncertain when or even if UNC will get one or both players back making any attempt to figure out what the future holds an exercise in hypothetical thinking. Even the players themselves aren't sure what is going to happen next. It is a team that thought it was going to be one thing and seven games into the season appears to be in a constant state of re-inventing itself on the fly. Out of seven games, four of them have yielded inexplicable results and left everyone wondering how to characterize this team. Even Roy Williams is at a loss to understand what is happening. If he doesn't know then it's a good chance no one else does either.

In a season of marred with uncertainty and unfolding in the least predictable manner imaginable, the one common thread found in UNC's two big wins is they played Carolina basketball. In recent years, the Carolina Way has been hijacked to stand for the reputation of the school or the success of the basketball program. In reality the Carolina Way has always been about how Carolina played the game. It was about the effort players bring, playing as a team and executing the system. It was never about winning. Winning is merely the happy consequence of playing the game as closely to those values as possible.

There are so many things about this season that are beyond the control of Roy Williams and his players. However, the one thing they can always keep a firm grasp on is how well they live up to the ideals first set forth by Dean Smith concerning the way Carolina plays basketball. The biggest takeaway from last night for the players shouldn't be knocking off the #1 team in the country or even the notion they can play with anyone. It has to be understanding what they are capable of when the played hard, played together and executed well. As long as they do that, whatever the results, the season will be just fine.