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UNC Basketball is no stranger to early season woes

If the hyperbole about bad early losses sound familiar, well, it is.

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

Let’s get one thing out of the way from the jump: there is plenty to worry about with Carolina basketball. Shots are not falling, half the team is nursing injuries, and one of the top recruits to come to Carolina in years is struggling as defenses focus on him. These are all real issues that have to be figured out, and if they aren’t, this Carolina team will have real trouble this season.

Roy Williams’ Carolina teams have been here before, however.

In just about each season since Williams has come back to Chapel Hill, you can point to a loss before the heart of the ACC gets going and say “huh?” The reasons for the losses vary, as each team and season has its own unique combination of issues that come together and allow the team to just put up a head-scratcher of a loss. In the wake of Carolina’s last two losses against the two best teams KenPom has on defense, it’s worth reminding ourselves that this is a well-traveled path. The end of the path usually ends well.

11/29/03: UNC 82, Cleveland State 76

Result: 2nd Round NCAA Tournament

Not a loss, per se, but in Williams’ first season the team showed its signs of having to adjust to the new style after the Doherty Era. The game was the Jawad Williams home game, and ultimately he was the reason the Tar Heels were able to pull it out. The game was a signal of an uneven season to come, which ultimately ended in Denver with a loss to Texas.

11/19/04: Santa Clara 77, UNC 66

Result: NCAA Champions

Carolina had to play their Maui Invitational prep game without a suspended Raymond Felton. Quentin Thomas was not ready and Carolina dropped a stunner. The good news is that they didn’t lose again until January, and fulfilled the expectations everyone had for them.

12/21/05: Southern California 74, UNC 59

Result: NCAA 2nd Round

The Tar Heels were ranked 17th at the time, only dropping an early game to Illinois in a rematch of the ‘05 title game. Fans were beginning to realize what they had in freshman Tyler Hansbrough, and this game seemed like an easy pick up. Instead, they shot only 37% overall and just over 50% from the stripe to get tripped up.

11/23/06: Gonzaga 82, UNC 74

Result: NCAA Elite 8

By this point, the Tar Heels had added Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington to the team, and there was a real feeling that they could go far. However, in the Preseason NIT, the Bulldogs announced to the world that they were going to be permanent players in the upper echelons of college basketball, stunning the Heels and leading by as many as 15 in the second half. Carolina brought it close, but weren’t able to get over the hump.

12/19/07: UNC 88, Nichols State 78

Result: NCAA Final 4

Nichols State was 4-8 at the time, but the Tar Heels just sluggishly worked their way through the game. There were some mitigating circumstances, as it was their first home game in about a month, and Hansbrough was coming back from a concussion. Still, this isn't a game folks expected to be close. They accepted the hiccup well, steamrolling through most of the rest of the season.

1/4/09: Boston College 85, UNC 78; 1/11/09: Wake Forest 92, UNC 89

Result: NCAA Champions

This is probably the most anomalous season of the whole bunch as it took Carolina until January to worry folks with a loss. What was surprising about this is that it caused Carolina to start 0-2 in ACC play, and derailed talk of Carolina potentially being undefeated in the regular season. They quickly recovered.

1/4/10: College of Charleston 82, UNC 79

Result: NIT Runner Up

The Tar Heels had only lost to Syracuse and Kentucky, games they were expected to drop after they had another mass exodus folioing a title. This game, however, portended just how rough the rest of the year would be as a very uneven season ended with the Tar Heels in the NIT.

11/19/10: Minnesota 72, UNC 67; 11/21/10: Vanderbelt 72, UNC 65

Result: NCAA Elite 8

The only time that the Tar Heels traveled down to Puerto Rico saw a couple of head-scratching losses. This was the season of talented freshman Harrison Barnes and unknown freshman Kendall Marshall. Marshall hadn’t been inserted into the starting lineup yet, and this tournament showed just how much trouble Carolina had with Drew leading the charge. It would take a few more weeks before Roy pulled the trigger.

11/26/11: UNLV 90, UNC 80

Result: NCAA Elite 8

Thanksgiving and casinos, Roy loves that combination. This game was played out in Las Vegas and was expected to be easy for one of the preseason national champion favorites. Instead, Chace Stanback had the game of his life with 28/10, and handed Carolina its first loss. The rest of the season went well until...Creighton.

11/27/12: Indiana 83, UNC 59

Result: NCAA 2nd Round

The Tar Heels suffered a respectable loss in Maui to Butler, but on their way back to Chapel Hill they had to stop in Bloomington for the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. Indiana was number 1 in the country at the time, so the loss wasn’t a surprise, but just how thoroughly dominated the Tar Heels were under new point guard Marcus Paige was jaw-dropping.

11/17/13: Belmont 83, UNC 80

Result: NCAA 2nd Round

This stunner ended an eight year non-conference winning streak by Carolina, and was even more stunning in that it was a comeback effort by Belmont. The start of this season was marred with the dragged out suspension of Leslie McDonald and PJ Hairston, and despite a double-double by James Michael McAdoo, the Tar Heels couldn’t survive the upset. The cloud surrounded the team the rest of the year, as well as the Academic Scandal getting fully ramped up.

12/3/14: Iowa 60, UNC 55

Result: NCAA Sweet 16

After recovering in the Battle 4 Atlantis to go 2-1, Carolina came into the ACC/Big 10 challenge hoping to build momentum for the upcoming season. The Hawkeyes, per Williams, wanted it more, and the team still trying to figure itself out struggled for the next few games. This was the season to see four losses in five games in the ACC season, but they would recover to get to the second weekend for the first time in three years.

11/21/15: Northern Iowa 71, UNC 67

Result: NCAA Runner-Up

The home game for senior Marcus Paige was bittersweet as Paige was hurt and couldn’t actually play, and the Tar Heels struggled when sophomore Joel Berry wasn’t quite ready to take the main load of the point guard duties. This doesn’t even count the annual loss to Texas about a month later, which really made folks wonder if this team could ever get to where it should. We don’t need to talk about how it ended.

12/31/16: Georgia Tech 75, UNC 63

Result: NCAA Champions

Josh Pastner is probably still at Georgia Tech because of this game, as it essentially won him Coach of the Year the same year Carolina took the title. No, I’m still not over it.

12/20/17: Wofford 79, UNC 75

Result: NCAA 2nd Round

I ignored the 45-63 loss to Michigan State in the PK80 because that game was really expected as Cam Johnson was still out of the lineup, and this loss was the one that shook college basketball. It came on the heels of a great win against Tennessee, but once Johnson was firmly able to be in, it became clear to Williams that Johnson had to be in the starting lineup. Yes, injuries forced Williams to retool his lineups late into December.

12/28/18: Michigan 84, UNC 67

Result: NCAA Sweet 16

Another head-scratching loss to Texas could be mentioned here, but this is the game that had everybody walking up to the ledge. The Tar Heels appeared to not compete in the game at all, and the shooting just wasn’t there at all as the freshman Coby White just didn't seem to be able to handle the game at this level.

Again, this isn’t to say that Carolina will turn it around and win a title, or that the issues the team has are wildly made up. There are real issues here that have and will detail leading into the upcoming games. All this is meant to do is serve as a reminder that Roy Williams teams have wondered down this path several times. If you doubt his ability to learn from this games and adjust his team, read the quotes from all of these recaps and see if they don’t at least sound familiar.