It was Sunday and UNC looked the part of Final Four contender on both ends of the floor. The defense stepped up to lock Pittsburgh down mainly giving up tough shots. The offense, after a stretch of questions regarding the shooting, was a well oiled machine. Confidence has been reborn both for the players and the fans. The feeling was UNC had finally locked in. It was right on schedule with Roy Williams' past teams and came at a perfect time with Duke next on the schedule.
By late Wednesday night it felt like back to square less than one. The perimeter shooting disappeared as UNC blew an eight point lead over the final six minutes to drop a one point decision to hated rival Duke. Brice Johnson had an ACC Player of the Year caliber game, Justin Jackson showed plenty of aggressiveness in crashing the boards for putbacks. The defense did enough to keep Duke in relatively check. However UNC missed multiple chances to step on the Blue Devil throat allowing Duke to hang around long enough to steal a win.
While much of the discussion and fan ire afterwards centered on Roy Williams failing to ask for a timeout in the waning seconds of a poorly executed offensive set, the real problems were evident well before Joel Berry's ill-fated attempted game winner. UNC's offense was out of sorts for much of the second half with the Tar Heels settling for jump shots and failing to enter the ball into the post. On one hand Johnson actually did much of his damage apart from post-ups. On the other hand, Duke's Marshall Plumlee had four fouls and UNC rarely challenged him. While the execution was bad, the general lack of awareness and disjointed manner in which the offense attacked Duke was more concerning. This was an experienced team that wilted under the pressure despite showing it could handle them earlier in the season.
At this stage it is clear UNC has the needed ingredients to make a Final Four run. Given the volatile nature of college basketball this season, the Tar Heels have as much a shot as anyone of ending the season with net cords in hand and "One Shining Moment" blaring in the background. Marcus Paige has shown he can still light teams up as has Justin Jackson. Isaiah Hicks off the bench has been a revelation while Brice Johnson has consistently been at a high level on the offensive end. Joel Berry's play, while not great lately, has been up to par for what Roy Williams wants out of his point guard. Kennedy Meeks, Nate Britt and Theo Pinson have had flashes though not consistently. The ingredients are there and at times(Maryland and Pitt) we've been able to taste how the cake turns out when all those ingredients are properly mixed.
The issue is it apparently doesn't happen often enough or doesn't happen against the better teams on UNC's schedule. At 10-3 in the ACC, UNC is still tied for first with a game versus co-leader Miami on Saturday. However much of that record has been built on the weaker end of the ACC standings. Against the .500 or above teams in the standings, UNC is 3-3 with the only wins coming against Syracuse, Clemson and Pitt. To this point UNC has just one win over a team currently in the AP Top 25. That came against Maryland on December 1stm the same Terps who recently dropped a game to previously 0-13 in the B1G Minnesota.
The flip side there is UNC doesn't have any horrendous losses on the schedule. The debacle at Northern Iowa can somewhat be excused since it was played without Marcus Paige. Of the other four losses, three came on the road and in those games UNC was in the game at the end. The loss to Duke was by one point and a contest it feels like UNC should have won. In that respect, the Tar Heels have largely taken care of business against teams it should beat and even with just one win over a ranked team, the losses aren't inexcusable the defeat at Duke's hands not withstanding.
That makes Saturday's showdown with Miami and really the next three games incredibly important if the Tar Heels are to answer various questions surrounding the team before March. Miami comes to town owning a share of first place in the ACC and this is the only match-up between these two teams. Whichever team wins will essentially have a two game lead on the other since that team would own the tiebreaker. UNC then has a two game road trip to face rival NC State and Virginia. If UNC finds a way to go 3-0 over the this week plus stretch it will put much of the uncertainty to bed.
Watching how UNC lost to Duke, there is a nagging feeling this team is missing something. It could be as simple as shots not falling from perimeter players or as a complicated as a team struggling with identity and/or leadership issues. Roy Williams likes to say "everything looks better then the ball is going in the basket" so in theory solving the former goes a long way towards getting this team on track. That was certainly the case versus Pittsburgh on Sunday and had UNC managed that kind of outside shooting on Wednesday the conversation we are having today would be vastly different.
The hope for this team is all those parts will eventually fit together to form a cohesive unit that will grab onto some consistency and fulfill expectations. The fear is that it simply never comes to fruition. Right now fear is winning the battle in terms of how UNC fans perceive this team. While it's rational to believe this team can still do great things, fan pessimism has stolen most of the confidence away leaving only doubt.
Wherever you are on that spectrum, Saturday's game versus Miami could be a clue to where this season is going.