Myron Medcalf of ESPN.com listed his top 10 most disappointing teams of the season thus far, and Carolina tops the list. He writes:
The bar can't change midseason. Before 2014-15 commenced, the talk around the Tar Heels centered on a possible Final Four run, national title contention and a challenge to Duke for the ACC crown. Maybe even winning it. The Tar Heels have lofty efficiency numbers, but you're supposed to beat Butler, Iowa (home) and Notre Dame (home) -- at least two of the three -- if you're a legit title contender. North Carolina hasn't met expectations yet.
Beyond the speciousness of that argument, which we'll come back to in just a little bit, let's look at some of the other teams who made Medcalf's disappointment list:
Syracuse: The Orange just missed making the list and "the Orange offense, in terms of efficiency, hasn't been this bad in more than a decade. But a 2-0 start to ACC play after Wednesday's gutsy win over Georgia Tech could mean Jim Boeheim's squad has found its mojo." Really? You mean that ugly 46-45 win signifies finding mojo?
Kansas State: The Wildcats began the season just outside the top 25 but are only 8-7 against the 204th-ranked non-conference strength of schedule and six of those losses are to teams ranked below 50 in the ESPN power index. Kansas State is also offensively challenged, ranking 220th in points per game and 306th in rebounding.
Michigan: The Wolverines began the season in the top 25 but are 9-6 with back-to-back losses to Eastern Michigan and NJIT earlier this season.
UCLA: The Bruins also began the season just outside the top 25 but have turned into an absolute train wreck. UCLA is only 8-7 (0-2 in the PAC-12) and has lost five straight, although three of those five were to top-10 teams. However two of those losses are by 30 points or more, and since the Gonzaga loss, the Bruins have only scored 44, 50, 56, and 39 points.
With those candidates on the board, UNC is the season's most disappointing team? Really? As for Medcalf's vacuous arguments as to why the Tar Heels are atop the list, you can and do change expectations all the time. As for beating two out of three of Butler, Iowa, or Notre Dame, well, you get the feeling that beating at least one of them would have kept Carolina off this list altogether. As our old buddy T.H. said, this is essentially a clickbait listicle with only three sentences to back his claim and really wasn't worth the effort to repudiate. Agreed.
Still, this piece highlights the optics that Carolina is underachieving or somehow not living up to expectations. There is a general feeling among both the media world and the fan base that we have had a disappointing effort from the Tar Heels this season here at essentially the halfway point.
In terms of wins and losses, there does not appear to be a real signature win in UNC's 11 victories other than over Ohio State in Chicago. Carolina comfortably defeated UCLA and Florida in the Bahamas but their seasons have landed them on Medcalf's disappointment radar as well. UNC's win over a 10-3 Davidson team in Charlotte is likely overlooked despite the Wildcats being a top-50 team according to Ken Pomeroy.
As for the four losses, given the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis field, the general feeling was a 2-1 showing in the Bahamas was to be expected, while 3-0 would be gravy. UNC did end 2-1 but the loss to Butler was unexpected despite the relatively easy wins over UCLA and Florida afterwards. And surely a win at Kentucky would be an upset, so Carolina gets a pass there. So the source of disappointment has centered on home losses to Notre Dame and Iowa especially. Notre Dame is a surprising 15-1, ranked in the top-15, and is the country's best field-goal shooting team and third in scoring, and UNC held the Irish to season-lows in both in Monday's 71-70 loss. Iowa is 11-5, ranked 33rd by Pomeroy, and in addition to beating Carolina on the road also went into Ohio State and beat the Buckeyes. Again UNC was expected to win both games but neither is a horrible loss. Plus, the two losses were a combined six points.
Beyond wins and losses, there is the statistical angle. Despite the four losses, UNC is still ranked 10th by Pomeroy. The Tar Heels are in the top 20 in pretty much every statistical category. The numbers would indicate that Carolina is on solid ground. In fact, Pomeroy has a stat called "luck", which he describes as the deviation between a team's record and what would be expected given the statistics. Teams whose record is worse than the statistics would indicate are considered unlucky; UNC is ranked 310th in "luck".
Nevertheless, the metrics would indicate that UNC will be just fine. As our own stat guru Chris Strohsahl tweeted today:
@DocHeelfire And if UNC splits those 6, and wins the rest, that puts them at 14-4 in the ACC. Right where most expected.— Chris Strohsahl (@Strohsahl) January 8, 2015
By the way, that's pretty stout that pretty much half of UNC's games so far have been against KenPom Top 50 teams. Also, Chris pointed out this about UNC's remaining schedule:
UNC has 11 games left against teams currently ranked >40 by KenPom. They’ve yet to have anyone ranked >40 come within 16 (8-0).— Chris Strohsahl (@Strohsahl) January 8, 2015
So the Heels have that going for them, which is nice.
So if it's not wins and losses exactly, and it's not statistics, exactly, then what about Carolina is not passing the eye test? Could it be the apparent struggles of Marcus Paige are being morphed onto the team? Again from Twitter on Thursday:
@DocHeelfire They might be conflating their expectations for Marcus Paige and the team.— James Gilbert (@jamesleegilbert) January 8, 2015
That's a great observation. Paige's overall struggles against Iowa and his last-minute misfires against Notre Dame may be giving more smoke to the sputtering/disappointing narrative than there is actual fire underneath. Add to that the often maddening fact that over the past four years UNC has started slowly under Roy Williams from November to early January, and there is even more fuel for the underachieving/disappointing label.
Still, Bill Parcells famously said, "you are what your record says you are", and while UNC is six points from 14-2, the fact remains they are 11-4 and facing a top-5 Louisville team on Saturday. If Carolina drops another game in Chapel Hill to fall to 11-5, it won't matter it came against another top team. It will only bring more questions and concerns. The good news for UNC fans is that Carolina is playing better defense than in the past few years and if the offense comes around, the mid-to-late season push that has been a Tar Heel hallmark may yield the kinds of results in March that were predicted in October.