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Tar Heel Hangover: UNC Basketball’s broken record season keeps skipping

Awaiting a merciful end to the season.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

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

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

Another week, another buzzer-beating loss. Rinse. Repeat.

Yes, this is actually the second week in a row that the article opens with that same line. This time, it was a blown double figure late lead to Notre Dame that ended by yielding an offensive rebound and a buzzer-beating three. The game against Louisville was less heart breaking but the outcome was the same. The losing streak now stands at seven.

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

Last week, this article mapped out a complicated but plausible path for the Heels to reach the .500 mark on the season and make the National Invitational Tournament. For a while on Monday night, the plan seemed to be taking form. Within seven hours of publication, however, Notre Dame had torpedoed the very first step.

Just when the team gets tantalizingly close to playing at full strength, the hits kept coming. Against Louisville Saturday, Garrison Brooks (illness) and Justin Pierce (ankle) both sat out. That brings the total number of missed games via injury or illness for this team to about one billion. These injuries have had three primary effects.

First, Carolina has been prevented for most of the season from having its most talented team on the floor. Perhaps it is true that this version of the Heels is not as gifted as others in recent memory, but college basketball generally, and the ACC specifically, are very mediocre this year. It would not take a dominating team to crack the top three or four in the conference and at full strength, I still think the Heels could have done that this year.

Second, being short-handed has led to extended minutes for the few healthy players available and that has brought on fatigue. Brooks is averaging almost 35 minutes a game, which is unheard of for a Roy Williams big man. By comparison, Tyler Hansbrough averaged 33 minutes per game his junior year and only 30 his senior year. Kennedy Meeks averaged just above 20 and 23 minutes in those two years. Luke Maye’s highest minutes per game was his junior year at 32. While the pace this season is slower, this historic amount of playing time is clearly taking a toll.

While Brooks is the starkest example, he is not alone. Cole Anthony is averaging 34 minutes per game. Brandon Robinson, when healthy, has been putting in 31 minutes a night. Leaky Black is averaging nearly 30 minutes. Even Andrew Platek, who has had to step into the starting lineup due to the injuries, has had games of 39 minutes (Clemson), 49 minutes (Virginia Tech), and 36 minutes (Duke).

Note: Platek’s 49 minutes against the Hokies combined with Brooks’ 48 have to be the largest combined total for a single game in the Roy Williams era. This is not confirmed but I welcome the fact-checker readers to provide an assist in the comments on this one.

These extended minutes are taking a huge toll in the closing minutes of games. Against Notre Dame, it was a blown 15-point lead with less than 9 minutes to play. Thirteen points with under 6 minutes to play against Duke. Seven points with under 4 to go against Virginia Tech. When energy is needed the most, this team is running on fumes.

Finally, with lineup changes galore and fatigue setting in, close losses have resulted in a loss of confidence. This team is trying, and failing, not to lose games instead of excelling in the closing minutes to win. With this attitude, every missed free throw, bad call, or turnover seems to be magnified. It is a hill that has been too steep to climb. In fact, the last time this squad won a close game was against Yale in December and even that contest had Carolina nearly giving up a six-point lead with 20 seconds remaining.

So why does any of this matter at this point? As the saying goes, if “ifs” and “buts” were candy and nuts, life would be one big party. This team has had a tortured road but the story of the season is reflected in the record.

This matters because the ACC Tournament is going to be the final chance at resurrecting the season. It has now become clear that the Heels will certainly finish in the bottom four of the conference and therefore have to play 5 games in 5 days in order to win. At the current pace, that could mean Brooks or Anthony or Black playing over 150 minutes within a week. Frankly, that task just seems impossible.

Final Thoughts

This is the best 10-17 team in the country. In fact, they are probably the 4th or 5th best team in the conference all things being equal. All things are not, however, equal. There is a ton of pent up frustration just waiting to explode. For some irrational and ridiculous reason, I still see hope in a team that can’t figure out how to win. This is the pain of being a Carolina fan in 2020.