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UNC Basketball: Back away from the ledge

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Your annual reminder that things aren’t as bad as they seem.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Losing hurts. Losing to the team that counts you as a bigger rival than you hurts more. Losing to that team on your home court adds to the pain. When that loss also makes two in a row? Woo boy, that’s just death by a thousand cuts.

As can be expected, fans from Carolina did not take the loss to NC State well. It didn’t help that the Wolfpack essentially threw a victory parade, and that we all pretty much know a State fan who hurled about three years worth of frustrations at us. The immediate result was outrageous proclamations about how this team doesn’t care, doesn’t have heart, isn’t good, is about to not even qualify for the NCAA Tournament, and so on.

Take a breath, people.

This column is about perspective, which is sometimes needed when things start to go south in the doldrums of the ACC season. The thing is: Carolina has been here before in one way or another, and the seasons have turned out pretty good.

So, with that in mind, let’s talk.

Historical Midseason Doldrums

First off, if it feels like we’ve been here before, we have. Let’s look back at Roy’s tenure and just see how they’ve done in this window, starting roughly in mid January and going through the first game after Duke:

2004(1/14-2/7): 4 Wins (UConn, UVa, NCSU, WFU) 4 Losses (MD, FSU, Clemson, Duke)

Result: 5th in ACC, loss in quarters, lost in 2nd round of NCAA

2005(1/15-2/13): 6 Wins (Clemson, Miami, UVa, NSCU, FSU, UConn) 2 Losses (WFU, Duke)

Result: 1st in ACC, loss in semis, NCAA Champs

2006(1/14-2/12): 5 Wins (FSU, Arizona, MD, Clemson, Miami) 4 losses (Miami, UVa, BC, Duke)

Result: 2nd in ACC, loss in semis, lost in 2nd round of NCAA

2007(1/13-2/10): 6 W (Clemson, GT, WFU, Arizona, Miami, WFU) 3 L (VT, NCSU, Duke)

Result: 1st in ACC, ACC Tournament Champs, lost in Elite 8

2008(1/16-2/10): 5 W (GT, Miami, BC, FSU, Clemson) 2 L (Maryland, Duke)

Result: 1st in ACC, ACC Tournament Champs, lost in Final 4

2009(1/17-2/15): 8 W (Miami, Clemson, FSU, NCSU, Maryland, UVa, Duke, Miami) 0 L

Result: 1st in ACC, lost in quarters, NCAA Champes

2010(1/16-2/13): 2 W (NCSU...NCSU) 7 L (Clemson, GT, WFU, UVa, VT, MD, Duke)

Result: 10th in ACC, lost in first round, NIT Runner up

2011(1/16-2/12): 6 W (Clemson, Miami, NCSU, BC, FSU, Clemson) 2 L (GT, Duke)

Result: 1st in ACC, lost in ACC final, lost in Elite 8

2012(1/14-2/11): 6 W (VT, NCSU, GT, WFU, Maryland, UVa) 2 L (FSU, Duke)

Result: 1st in ACC, lost in ACC final, lost in Elite 8

2013(1/19-2/16): 6 W (Maryland, GT, BC, VT, WFU, UVa) 3 L (NCSU, Miami, Duke)

Result: 3rd in ACC, lost in ACC final, lost in second round

2014(1/20-2/22): 9 W (Clemson, GT, NCSU, Maryland, ND, Pitt, FSU, Duke, WFU) 1 L (UVA)

Result: T3rd in ACC, lost in quarters, lost in second round

2015(1/21-2/21): 5 W (Wake, FSU, Syracuse, BC, GT) 4 L (Louisville, UVa, Pitt, Duke)

Result: 5th in ACC, lost in ACC title game, lost in sweet 16

2016(1/20-2/20): 6 W (Wake, VT, BC, BC, Pitt, Miami) 3 L (Louisville, ND, Duke)

Result: 1st in ACC, ACC Tournament Champs, lost in NCAA title game

2017(1/14-2/15): 7 W (FSU, Syracuse, BC, VT, Pitt, ND, NCSU) 2 L (Miami, Duke)

Result: 1st in ACC, lost in semis, NCAA Champs

So losing around this time of year isn’t exactly new. Only one team, the ‘09 title team, went through this stretch cleanly. You know what else isn’t exactly new? Finishing the season in the top half of the ACC and getting through to the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament, as well as winning at least one game in the NCAA.

Looking at that chart again, right now the season is looking a lot like 2015. Carolina had a pretty good non-conference slate, losing three times, got off to a choppy start in the conference, lost to NC State in Chapel Hill, and finished in 5th place with a conference record of 11-7. If this Carolina team goes 6-3 in their last 9, they’ll match that record.

That team ended up getting to the ACC title game and making the Sweet 16.

When I brought up 2015, did you remember that rough stretch or did you remember the run to the ACC title game and the close loss to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16? Did you remember that Carolina had three ACC losses during that stretch of the 2016 season that ended in the title game? All of this is to say: they’ve been here before.

The Luck Factor

What’s funny about this 16-6 team is that they are ridiculously close to being 19-3. Against Wofford, they are a missed Luke Maye 3-pointer away from tying the game in the final minute. We all know the missed opportunity against FSU, and had Joel Berry made his first free throw against State in the waning moments on Saturday, the game doesn’t even go to overtime.

State, especially, is such a weird blip on the radar that it’s difficult to take a lot of meaning out of it. A 27% 3-point shooter goes 7-7? There’s also this, courtesy of Gary Marbry on Twitter:

He adds that stat goes back to 2010. Such a weird confluence of events had to go right for State to win that game yesterday, and Carolina still put themselves in a position to win.

Something else, which I noted in my Three Things Learned yesterday, Tony Bradley leaving early and Seventh Woods suffering from the stress fracture has dramatically altered the plans that Roy had for this team. These are things that you can’t control. You may remember that last year, a constant rotation of injuries had Roy juggling his lineup, not really getting settled until the end of the season. The one position that was able to stay relatively healthy at the end of the season? Point Guard, and while Joel Berry clearly wasn’t 100% by the end, he was well enough to play and Williams was able to employ a three-man rotation there. This year, Woods’ injury has kept him from doing that, and you are starting to see the effects of it.

There’s also the issue of the shooting slumps by both Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams, and those woes were on full display Saturday. No one honestly believes that those two will keep posting 0-for days as the season goes on, it just hurts when they are both slumping at the exact same time, and both of them are starting. There’s no explanation, with the exception of the fact that shooters sometimes slump.

So some of what’s gone wrong are things that neither Roy nor the players on the court can control. None of them will use that as an excuse, and Roy has shown that he will continue to use what he has to try and figure out what works before March. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the plan Roy had for how things were going to go has been blown up in a couple of key areas, and everyone is still trying to figure it all out.

Where do we go from here?

Here’s where things are looking up. Carolina is 5-4 in the conference going into the back half of the schedule. The good news is that UVa is completely running away with the regular season thanks to their win over Duke Saturday, and every spot from second on down is still wide open. Don’t believe me? Second place right now is Louisville at 6-2, Duke is in third at 6-3, then Clemson at 5-3, but really they are part of a big logjam where Carolina sits. At this point, only Wake Forrest and Pittsburgh can really give up hope on finishing in the top half of the division, so Carolina still has a chance to finish with a double bye.

The schedule for the second half does ramp up, as can be expected since the ACC wants to use the month between the Super Bowl and the NCAA Tournament to feature marquee games. Here’s what’s left:

1/30-@ Clemson

2/3-vs. Pitt

2/8-vs. Duke

2/10-@ NCSU

2/12-vs. ND

2/17-@ Louisville

2/21-@ Syracuse

2/27-vs. Miami (Senior Night)

3/3-@ Duke

Could Carolina have a losing record during that stretch? Absolutely they could. This year has shown that anything is possible, but let’s look at the other side of the coin. Each game has a component in it that would point to where Carolina absolutely could win, and it’s not impossible...not likely but not impossible...that they could go 9-0 in this stretch. Think I’m wrong?

Clemson hasn’t been the same since Grantham was lost for the year. Pitt is the worst team in the league. Carolina gets four nights off before hosting a Duke team that’s lost to both State and BC on the road. They’ll be motivated for revenge against State in an hostile environment and it’s unlikely State will replicate their ridiculous 3-point shooting. Notre Dame is their third game in 6 days but they are in the state of NC the whole time, while Notre Dame still won’t have Bonzie Colson back and travel to Chapel Hill from South Bend on a short turnaround themselves. Louisville has taken advantage of an easier schedule and have lost to Miami and Clemson, plus has a blowout from Kentucky on their resume. Carolina will have experience with the Syracuse zone and the Orange are only at .500 thanks to wins over the bottom of the league. They get a full week off before Miami, who has had a disappointing season and, oh by the way, it’s Senior Night for Joel Berry and Theo Pinson. Finally, if one team isn’t intimidated by Cameron, it’s Carolina.

There are absolutely some difficult hills to climb here, but when you look at the breakdown, you have to like their chances at a good record on the back half of the season. A 7-2 run would easily be enough to get a double-bye, possibly a tie for the two seed depending on how the chaos in the rest of the league goes down. The goal should absolutely be for that double bye, but even if they wind up in the fifth spot, they’ve shown they can make that four day run.

As for the NCAA tournament? There are some seasons where you have a couple of obvious champions, and you have seasons where you might as well take half of the field, toss it in a bag, and pull out a name. Right now, Villanova, UVa, and Purdue look like solid one seeds. After that? Good luck.

This is to say that everything is still on the table except the ACC regular season title and this includes the other top spot in the Charlotte pod. Once in the tournament, you can only play the games in front of you, and if there were ever a season where the brackets likely won’t go according to chalk, it’s this one. It all depends on matchups.

Obviously, things are going to have to start breaking in a different direction for this to happen, but it’s happened before. Do I think this is a National Championship team? No, but going into this season did we think they were at that level? We just were all excited by their great wins in the non-conference, that we lost the expectations we had at the beginning of the year.

The team is not above criticism, but keep in mind the harshest critics are likely going to be the guys sitting in that locker room and sweating through the practices. The quotes coming out of the losses are what you want to hear, and are you really going to question whether or not a team that is coming off a National Title wants to win? Are you going to watch Joel Berry take spill after spill and question whether he wants to win?

Perspective helps. I have been watching Carolina Basketball since I was born, and can remember games since Kenny Smith played for the Heels. I was fresh out of school for 2001-02, so...I’ve seen bad. I’m also past the “Roy can’t coach” idea since he’s won three national titles. I’ve seen several mediocre middles of the ACC season just to see the rotation tighten up, things start to click, and Carolina to rise up the standings.

There’s a lot of season left, buckle up and enjoy the ride.