Where Does North Carolina Stand Entering the Postseason?
North Carolina had a chance to enter the postseason with a colossal amount of momentum, but, as the team has done for the second half of the season, the Tar Heels failed to close out a tough opponent, and will enter the ACC Tournament at 21-10.
Saturday’s loss to Duke was a huge letdown, especially given how hard the team fought to build a two-point halftime lead against the Blue Devils. I was in the building, and you could feel the collective energy of the crowd. Everyone seemed to believe that this time, Carolina would shut the door. Instead, the Heels played sloppily down the stretch, and Tyus Jones made them pay at the free throw line, leading to a Duke victory, 84-77. This loss stings, and it sends the Tar Heels into tournament season with a sour taste in their mouths.
So, where does North Carolina stand?
This year’s team was an enigma, to say the least. After a few non-conference losses (including the still-puzzling home loss to Iowa), it seemed that Carolina had put things back together just in time to hit its usual January-February stride. The team peaked during a 6-game winning streak in late January. After losing to Notre Dame by just one point at home, the team rebounded with an absolute thriller of a victory over Louisville at home, capped off by another ridiculous Marcus Paige lay-up in the final seconds of the game. In that span, Carolina beat Louisville in the Dean Dome, N.C. State in Raleigh, and handled Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Florida State, and Syracuse.
Then, the Tar Heels took a roadtrip to the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.
That’s where the season somehow completely derailed for Carolina, and they haven’t fully recovered since. We all know the story: The Tar Heels started out strong, build an 18-point lead early in the second half, and Louisville came all the way back to force overtime and eventually put away Carolina, 78-68. It was an ugly collapse, and was the beginning of a 2-5 skid, with the lone wins coming against bottom of the barrel teams Boston College and Georgia Tech. In that skid, North Carolina lost games in a variety of ways:
They blew halftime leads (at Louisville, vs. Virgina), they were blown out (at Pittsburgh), and they made comebacks, only to fall short (at Duke, vs. N.C. State). Those last two losses, against Duke and N.C. State, were games that had the Tar Heels won, they could have found their swagger back. Instead, they dropped two intense games to hated rivals, both with false-hope runs that had fans on the edge of their seats, yet couldn’t find that killer instinct to put their opponents away.
Going into March, North Carolina has very little time to find that killer instinct. In their season finale against Duke, Carolina turned the ball over 10 times in the second half, each more crippling than the last. That’s not what a team that wins in the tournament can afford to do. In March, the teams that close out strong are the ones that advance, and in February and early-March, Carolina hasn’t found that ability. While we normally see the Tar Heels struggle in non-conference and early in ACC play, this year the team has seemingly regressed, which is bizarre given the talent of this group. For me, that points to a mental issue, and a team weak in that category will not last long in the postseason.
Somehow, North Carolina has got to get its swagger back. If the Tar Heels can take care of business Wednesday, they will have a date with the Louisville Cardinals on Thursday. It would be poetic justice if the Heels can beat their newest ACC foes, and maybe, just maybe, they can restore that confidence they lost in the KFC Yum! Center. This week, for North Carolina, is more about one more banner in the Dean Smith Center. This week is the Tar Heels’ last opportunity to believe in itself before The Big Dance.
Photo courtesy of Spencer Herlong (@TarHeelPhoto, spencerfoto.com). Season results via ESPN.com.