The last couple of weeks have brought an amazing stew of circumstances that make everything feel worse than it is.
Let’s start by acknowledging the obvious: a four-game losing streak not only hurts, but wasn’t expected from a team that came in as the preseason number one and returned a lot of their talent. It’s also been a while since we’ve felt this way as a fanbase: 2016-17 was the last season that returned this much talent and it was basically championship or bust. We didn’t quite know what to expect in 2017-18 with the hangover and we got a second round exit. 2018-19 saw a freshman point guard that led to an unexpectedly fun season where the hope was a title, but rough patches were expected. 2019-20...let’s just not talk about that, and 2020-21, in a lot of ways we just felt lucky to have a season which quickly fell flat because of the early exit in the bubble.
Do I need to remind you about last season? Sure, there wasn’t a four-game losing streak, but pull up the early games. Go ahead. We want to talk about going 0-2 at Mohegan Sun, or getting flattened by Kentucky, or the struggle against Furman? You want to see that after Mohegan Sun they came home, played a game, then just sat for a week before throttling Michigan at home?
Now, don’t take this as saying there aren’t problems, because there are. There’s a ton of posts out there right now with numbers to show how badly the team is shooting, how bad they are at distributing the ball, and it’s concerning that a team that is supposedly this familiar with each other is having this much trouble this early, even regardless of the schedule. Yet, when you pull back, just about each game has something that we just couldn’t have in the early season blowouts last year: explanations.
Iowa State-this is arguably the most inexplicable loss, but all you have to do is look at the box score and the explanation is right there, and it’s name Caleb Grill. Iowa State played eight on the floor total over 10 minutes, and Grill led them all with 38 minutes, 7-11 from three, 11-15 overall, and 31 points. Jaren Holmes was arguably more efficient, playing 29 minutes and scoring 22 points on 8-17 shooting and 2-4 from three. The problem with putting Leaky Black on the best player is that another player can get hot, and basically this is what happened. On its own, a five-point loss to a team that’s now 7-1 on the season with wins over Villanova and UNC isn’t exactly cause for concern, but it is where the slide started.
Alabama-The Crimson Tide is going to be a force in the SEC and there were a lot of folks who thought this would be the title game of the PKI, they just got tripped up by UConn. Playing their third game in four days, and one that was as physically grinding wore the players out. Once the game got to four overtimes, everyone’s legs on both teams were shot, and at this point this is when Armando Bacot’s injuries started to catch up to him. R.J. Davis and Caleb Love felt like they had to shoot their way to victory, but they just didn’t have the stamina. There was also some pretty shoddy officiating that, I still contend cost them the game, but the counter is “don’t put yourself in a position to where you let the officials decide it.”
Indiana-This is where the schedule starts to catch up with you, and once you played seven halves of basketball in four days, winning was always going to be tough. Now, let’s add to that going into arguably the most hostile road environment they’ll see this season, (yes that counts Cameron) and then an already hobbled Bacot injured his shoulder. The Tar Heels had to try to adjust on the fly, and once IU got the lead they weren’t going to give it up. It’s also worth remembering the 2016-17 team went to Bloomington after a Thanksgiving tournament in Hawaii and promptly laid a 67-76 egg to the Hoosiers.. So...this isn’t exactly without precedent. THAT team got to come back to Chapel Hill, take Thanksgiving off, and then fly to Bloomington.
Virginia Tech-This was arguably the worst performance of the four, and yet you know who didn’t play a minute? Armando Bacot. Hubert Davis wisely realized this was game one of twenty in the ACC, and that this was as good a time as any to stretch the bench and see what we had. You also had the situation of a regular sub, DeMarco Dunn, finding out he had a broken hand and now will be out. Thus, they have to lean on guys like Seth Trimble and Tyler Nickel to play heavy minutes in their first ACC road game. Oh, and, they really didn’t get a chance to practice any of this because they arrived back to Chapel Hill for the first time in a week early Thursday morning and had to immediately hop to exams. Their reward was to hop on a bus and play against a team that had been at home for a couple of weeks, and their last game was Monday. That showed in the final minutes as Carolina finally got a run going but just ran out of steam, but with that said, could you honestly say that if Armando Bacot played in that game Justyn Mutts would have gone off like he had?
I know fans from other teams are going to look at each one and say “man, look at those excuses!” That isn’t it at all, each team that beat Carolina earned the win, and they came as a result of hard work and excellent team play. Each squad was able to exploit the weakness and the poor play by the Tar Heels, and defend well to keep Carolina from establishing a rhythm. This isn’t meant to diminish from their wins-even Bama, who realized quicker than Carolina “hey, if we go inside since we can’t shoot, maybe we’ll win.”
Rather, when you break it down game-by-game, you can see outside forces add on to an already difficult stretch that make it to where a loss in any game would be expected, and to some level, accepted. It just so happens that each game has come back-to-back-to-back-to-back. To add to this, the fanbase is already salty because of how football played to end the season — and as someone who was in Kenan and saw the flag “planting” I was plenty salty — so naturally each loss will take on a bigger feeling. Then you have the “inadvertent whistle” at the end of a stressful 4 OT game, and then there hasn’t been any sort of palate cleansing game to help recover from an arduous stretch. That ‘16-’17 team? After laying the egg in Bloomington, they played Radford, Davidson, then Tennessee, all in Chapel Hill and all in about a two-week span. All were wins. Then came Vegas and the infamous 103-100 Kentucky game, and, oh yeah, that team lost their first ACC game as well.
Again, there are problems with this squad. They aren’t rebounding, they aren’t assisting, and they aren’t making three-pointers. It’s funny, though, if you make more threes, you’ll likely get more assists, and as you hit more threes you’ll draw defenses out further from the basket that’ll get you more rebound on the misses. Armando Bacot has had to get used to an inordinate amount of defense as teams are daring the cold Tar Heels to shoot, and so far they haven’t made them pay.
And yet, there’s no loss out of these four where you look at it and just say “how on Earth did that happen” like we did numerous times last year. Now the squad is home, for a solid week, plays a couple home games, then goes to New York and Charlotte with some winnable non-conference games. There’s plenty of time to regain the momentum that had been lost, football is mostly over so there’s no more disappointment there to drag us down, and if Bacot is shelved for an extended period of time, Hubert Davis may have struck on something at the end of the Hokies game that may work while he recovers.
I’ll be in the Smith Center Sunday, celebrating another trip around the sun-something I always appreciate considering what I went through in 2018-19-and hopefully the home crowd ready to see their team for the first time in three weeks, exorcising out the exam stress that had built up will be just the thing.
And look, if you are having trouble getting up for the game, or if you need something to cheer you up from the last couple of weeks: just put this on repeat for a little while-