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Tar Heel Hangover: Disappointment

Every season has ups and downs. This one really hurts.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Clemson Andersen Independent Mail-USA TODAY NETWORK

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

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

Honestly, it kind of felt like the world was ending (some more) on Tuesday. After riding a high through the weekend based on wins and improved play, there is just no explanation for what occurred in Little John. If last week was an overreaction to the good, today will be a harsh swing the other direction.

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

Most losses have those couple of bright spots that a coach can build on. I’m struggling to come up with even one. The best play Tuesday night was my wife slowly exiting stage left as time expired with a whispered “I’m sorry.”

Honestly, most seasons have the head scratching loss that Tar Heel fans did not see coming. In 2009, it was against a mediocre Boston College team at home. In 2017, it was at a not-very-good Miami. Part of being a great program is that losses to average teams are unusual.

Here is the quiet secret for fans to come to grips with; while this is a great program, this is not a great team. In those championship years, a loss like the game at Clemson was a stumble. It was a mere bump in the road to greatness. This team has no such cushion to absorb bad games for three reasons.

First, despite an attention-grabbing win streak, the Heels sit at 11-6 overall and 6-4 in the conference. A middling team in the down ACC does not have much chance at making the NCAA Tournament. Clemson was on a downward spiral but has a decent enough record to keep the contest respectable. The Heels turned what could have been a quality road win into an embarrassing loss.

Second, the schedule the rest of the way in is not kind. Sure, a team on a roll may see the next six weeks as an opportunity, but now there is doubt. Carolina plays the top four teams in the conference once each and Duke twice. Even in a down year for the conference, those are difficult games. The margin for error seems so slim that off nights are just not a luxury this team can afford.

Third, after over a year of basketball frustration, this seems like a real regression. Everyone who had been playing well lately played poorly. Too many turnovers, too many missed free throws, and not nearly enough points.

The coaching staff faces the same challenge that the fans do; put this game behind us. It was bad and it was ugly and it is over. The players must continue to focus on the positives that come from group development and just understand that sometimes there are off nights. Coach Williams will find all the little things that have gone right these last four weeks and make sure that the whole team notices. Much better to have a bad night in February than in March.

Key stat for the week.

There was nothing to look at against Clemson so I will give a number for Saturday. The first four minutes will be key. Carolina will be a bit shaken from the South Carolina trip and a quick start could show that the last game was just a blip.

Duke, on the other hand, is seething with doubt and desperate for some optimism. Maybe they see Clemson as the transitive property team that proves they are better than the Heels. Maybe they think that the Carolina game is the catalyst for a season resurrection. Maybe they believe.

The first four minutes will set the emotional scene. Carolina needs a fast start.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

How about a few predictions against Duke? Small gym with no fans seems to beg for a good shooting night. Duke shoots a bit under 33% from three for the year and will certainly need to make outside shots to win. I like Kerwin Walton to have a huge game with help from either Caleb Love or R.J. Davis from deep. It will feel like going back to a high school gym for all three and that could be a good thing.

This will also be an opportunity for Carolina to absolutely dominate on the glass. Duke is a good rebounding team that relies on second chances to generate points. The have not, however, seen a front line like Carolina. The key will be for Carolina to limit Duke rebounding from the guard positions and solidify the advantage.

The wild card is what this game feels like to the players. No fans is a very different environment. This could be much more like a playground war than a college game of finesse. For upperclassmen, it will be a peculiar atmosphere. For the freshmen, it may seem like just another game. Advantage goes to the younger players who will not know any different.

Final Thoughts

Duke is terrible. If there were any other name on the jersey, this game likely would not even be close. Because crazy things happen in this series, however, then anything is possible. The only certainty is that it will not be a just two bourbon night.

Stay safe and Go Heels!