I think we’d all be telling a whopper of a lie if we said that we predicted UNC to fall into a 20-point hole against the Pittsburgh Panthers, but that is exactly what we experienced last night. A horrible first half of shooting drowned the Heels before halftime, and despite a heroic performance in the final minutes of the game, the Panthers left Dean Dome with a big win. This leaves the Heels with a LOT more questions than answers, and yes, we’ll get to the other problem in just a bit.
For now, let’s discuss the three things we learned in this game.
The Heels are exactly who we thought they were
During my time covering this basketball team for the 2021-22 season, I have resisted the urge to label this team with permanent ink. Each time they have performances like the one they had last night, they find a way to magically improve the next game, and then they will turn around and lay another egg. It’s been a lather, rinse, repeat situation, and that really drives home the reality of this team: that is what is in their DNA. That is who they are, and that is who they are going to be for the rest of the season.
Let’s finally call out the identity of this team: when they want to be, they can be really good, and really fun to watch. When they underestimate their opponents, they are not only bad, but they are one of the worst Tar Heel teams we’ve seen in the 21st century. That sounds like an exaggeration, but how else do you go down by 20 points to a sub-.500 Pitt team? Of course we can spend ages pointing fingers, but all I’m going to say is this: Roy Williams is a smart man. Make of that what you will.
When I moved to North Carolina back in 2013, I was told that if you don’t like the weather, give it like 10 minutes and it’ll change anyway. That sums up this team in a nutshell, and now that we’re in mid-February, I don’t expect that to change.
One other aspect of this team that I’m convinced won’t change this season is the ability to match physicality. The reason the Heels fell into such a deep hole against the Panthers in the first half is that they were a much more physical team than Carolina. This has been a pattern in just about all of UNC’s losses, and it’s troubling because it points to a major toughness issue. Example: Armando Bacot was getting double-teamed, knocked around, and flat-out beat in the post whenever he touched the ball. On the flip side, John Hugley and Mouhamadou Gueye didn’t feel much pressure in the paint, and racked up 29 points collectively.
Now, here’s where things get…irritating. With five minutes left in the game, the Heels actually did get a lot more physical with the Panthers. They attacked the ball, set up traps, and didn’t give Pitt breathing room. While that sounds like it contradicts my take that this team isn’t tough, what must be asked out loud is why it took Kerwin Walton knocking down threes for this to happen? Why did Caleb Love suddenly turn into Steph Curry? Why did Brady Manek come up with the perfect defensive play with less than two minutes left? Sure, this team is capable of toughness, but it shouldn’t take a player off the bench saying enough is enough for the switch to flip. If that’s what this team is constantly waiting for, I am very concerned for the rest of the regular season.
The NCAA Tournament isn’t looking likely
This probably goes without saying, but it’s looking more and more likely like the Tar Heels will be watching the NCAA Tournament from their couch. After losing every single Quad 1 game and now losing a Quad 4 game to a sub-.500 Pitt team, the Heels are going to need a miracle run to get into the big dance. Virginia Tech is the best team not named Duke left on the schedule, and after that they face 11-14 Louisville, 11-16 NC State, and 13-12 Syracuse. It’s an extremely dark timeline, because one wrong move and their tournament hopes are toast.
Is there hope that they could get in? Yes, but saying that there is hope is more theoretical than anything. If they can win out the regular season and take out Duke, they could probably get an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament if they can make a deep run in the ACC Tournament. If they can’t do that, they have to be ready to go on a run of a lifetime and win the ACC Tournament in order to earn their bid. It’s not the craziest thought that they could do it, but considering the fact that I have now come to terms with what this team is, I lack confidence.
All negativity aside, this has to be said: Hubert Davis still has this team in position to potentially secure a double-bye in the ACC Tournament. The question, however, is if his players can finally find a way to dig deep and pull off a miracle run to keep playing in late March. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.