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Tar Heel Hangover: The effect of a losing record on the fans

The players are having a hard time dealing with adversity. So are the fans.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our opportunity to review last week’s game, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

Yet another loss against a very average conference opponent has the season beyond the reasonably salvageable. Cole Anthony is very good, but his return will not fix all of the other shortcomings on the team. This is a historically bad shooting team from the field, from three, and from the free throw line. The defense, which started the year as a promising bright spot, has turned into a liability that yields easy shot after easy shot. More than all of that, it looks like this team is losing its fighting spirit. Once broken, that attitude is not one that can be repaired.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

There were some differences in the Pitt game from the coaching side. First, there was quite a bit more zone on defense (meaning there was at least some zone on defense). Perhaps this is a an acknowledgement that the team will not win with pure offense and instead the defensive intensity must be ratcheted up while the tempo is slowed. Alternatively, this could just be an admission that the perimeter and wing players can not consistently keep in front of their man.

Second, there was no deep call to the bench. During dramatic Pitt runs where nothing looked good for the Heels, Roy Williams would have normally gone deep into his bench to try and bring some energy to the court. This would have been Blue Steel time in past years. Down 20 in the first half, Roy would normally light the fire. At this point, there are no more tricks to pull. A respectable loss would be enough.

Finally, it is unclear what progression is being made to next year. Jeremiah Francis, just off of a game that he had to sit out with a knee injury aggravation, played very limited minutes in the first half. Curiously, with the game essentially over with two minutes remaining, Francis stayed on the court. Is this late game experience looking forward to a sophomore campaign or is it just limiting the damage this year at the expense of increased wear and tear?

Cole Anthony’s return will need to be more than one player on the court. Given the understandably downtrodden attitudes during the game, Anthony’s return must accompany a new offensive scheme, defensive principle, or lineup. There must be something so totally different that the players can honestly look to that point as a fresh start. This needs to be a total reboot and it has to work right out of the gate.

Some options could be continued use of the zone and a slow deliberate offense, full court pressure to generate turnovers and layups, or a hybrid lineup with Francis, Anthony, Armando Bacot, Garrison Brooks, and Justin Pierce. Whatever it is, it must be different.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

This is the part of the article that normally previews an upcoming opponent. We would talk about a trip to Blacksburg on Wednesday and home contest against Miami on Saturday. The article looks at matchups and key stats to keep an eye on. Not this week.

This week, the quick peek ahead will center on the what is upcoming for Carolina fans. Time to vent a bit with a hint of context.

College basketball is the greatest sport. These are tremendous athletes who possess the promise and flaws of youth. Coaches can have a major impact on a game’s outcome and programs are forced to reinvent themselves with new personnel every year or two. The parity across the landscape makes it even more fun and there is simply no better method for determining a champion that the NCAA Tournament.

This year, I have just about quit watching college basketball altogether. It is just too painful. Normally, a Tar Heel loss or two has me watching other conference games to see where the team will be positioned. A winning streak means rooting hard for underdogs so the team can climb in the rankings. I have even stopped watching Duke games just to root for the other guy.

Not only is Carolina not relevant, they are a sad news novelty story. This is hard to accept because it is so rarely true. But things have never been this bad for as long as I can remember. After years of nationally ranked teams and #1 seeds and compliments on pre-game shows, the change is stark.

Perhaps the biggest shame is the timing of this disaster. The ACC is mediocre at best. College basketball generally is ripe for the pickings without any strong teams to take control. Even an average Carolina team would be in the top 2 or 3 in the league and in the top 10 nationally. Alas, it is an opportunity that the Heels are powerless to take advantage of.

At this point, the losses do not even sting anymore. They are more like a mild soreness. Losing with a great team against an expectation of dominating victory can be incredibly disappointing; this team losing is something different. It has become a non-event, and that may be the saddest statement of all.

I will still watch the Heels, but I now do so with a calmer demeanor. There is no yelling in the house at the games anymore. I still wear Carolina gear out, but always have the one sentence explanation ready to go about a team that was ranked 6th in November, incurred injuries, and now will not make the tournament. This is the numbness a fan endures from a terrible season. The fact that it is such an anomaly for Tar Heel fans just makes it all the more difficult to accept.