That trend has been prevalent ever since the season’s opening tip against Oakland on Nov. 8. After outscoring the Golden Grizzlies by 37 in the first half, UNC was outscored by 14 after the break. And before you dismiss those final 20 minutes as irrelevant due to the sizeable halftime lead, consider that Marcus Paige didn’t sub out for good until 2:10 showed on the clock.
On Nov. 15, the Tar Heels were tied with Holy Cross – currently 6-7 – at halftime before pulling away for an eight-point win, and then two days later, Belmont pulled the first upset of the season at the Smith Center with a 83-80 win.
Despite those early lows, UNC rebounded with a shocking 93-84 win over the defending national champion Louisville Cardinals. The roller coaster promptly descended with a four-point loss at UAB before reaching another peak three days later with a double-digit victory at top-ranked Michigan State.
There have been a few dominant performances along the way – a 31-point win over UNCG and a 33-point victory over UNCW – but for the most part, while UNC has been able to elevate its play to match the elite opponents on its schedule, it’s also dropped its intensity level against lesser-known squads. For every Kentucky, there’s a Davidson, or so it seems.
In order for the Tar Heels to capitalize on their early-season resume bullet point wins, they will have to maintain their effort level throughout conference play and win the games they should win, beginning at Wake Forest.
On Friday, UNC head coach Roy Williams acknowledged that his current group has been one of his more unpredictable teams.
“I’d say the biggest thing that I’ve been displeased [about] is the consistency of our attention and even sometimes our effort,” Williams told reporters during his weekly press conference. “But I’ve got hope. I really do.”
On Saturday, UNC struggled to put away an outmanned North Kentucky squad that had one starter taller than 6-foot-4 – Jalen Billups – and he checked in at 6-foot-6. Even so, the Norse (5-9) outscored UNC in the paint and trailed by five at halftime.
According to junior forward Jackson Simmons, Williams challenged his team to care more at halftime. He stressed making the extra pass, improving concentration and communicating on defense.
James Michael McAdoo admitted that UNC was “lackadaisical” and likely expecting a “cake walk” when it took the floor against Northern Kentucky. Make no mistake about it – the Norse represented a cupcake on the schedule. The Tar Heels just failed to capitalize on the treat.
“Every game should be a big-time game and we have to understand that,” Simmons said. “Everyone thinks that anybody can be beaten on any given day and we have to come out and treat everyone like a big-time opponent.”
When asked following that game if maturity had played a role in his team’s drastic elevation swings, Williams replied: “I hope it is, because maturity means that we can get there. Lack of maturity now means that we can get there eventually, so I hope that’s what it is.”
Simmons and Paige both agreed that maturity has part of the issue, while the sophomore point guard also highlighted complacency setting in after solid stretches of play.
McAdoo told reporters on Friday that maintaining effort and intensity has been emphasized in practice this week and that the freshmen, in particular, have responded well.
“They’re all great players and I think they are really starting to understand what will come when ACC play does start,” McAdoo said. “I definitely think that’s something that is huge for our team’s success.”
There’s little doubt that the Tar Heels will be ready to play No. 2 Syracuse next weekend or No. 7 Duke down the road. The question is whether UNC will play well enough on the road – Sunday in Winston-Salem, for example – to rack up critical league wins in the quest for early NCAA Tournament action at PNC Arena in Raleigh.
“We have to fix that because once you get into conference play, you’ve got to play up,” Simmons said. “Everyone’s vying for a championship.”