The Tar Heels (11-7) have stumbled out to their second 1-4 start ever in conference play. That record also represents the worst ACC start during the Roy Williams era. The 2009-10 squad held the previous mark after starting 2-3 (which turned into 2-7).
The most troubling aspect of UNC's 1-4 record is that most pundits highlighted the need for a strong start in ACC play due to a tough stretch of games in the second half of the schedule. The Tar Heels were favored in three of their first five league contests, but suffered losses at Wake Forest and at home to Miami.
UNC will likely be favored in each of its next four games – Clemson, at Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Maryland – and a clean sweep would give the Tar Heels their first winning record in ACC play at 5-4.
While it's far too early to classify any game or games as a "must win" scenario, the critical importance of this particular stretch with respect to a NCAA Tournament bid becomes apparent when looking at the next four-game set on the schedule. UNC travels to Notre Dame (2-4 ACC) on Feb. 8, hosts Duke (4-2) and Pittsburgh (5-1) on Feb. 12 and Feb. 15, respectively, and then flies down to Tallahassee to face Florida State (4-2) on Feb. 17.
UNC is currently projected as an underdog in each of those four games, according to kenpom.com. That's not to suggest that the Tar Heels will lose all four games, although the inverse argument applies as well – there's no guarantee that they will take care of business over their next four games, either.
Clemson (13-5, 4-2 ACC), for example, plays at a similar pace to Virginia and currently ranks second nationally in effective field goal percentage (41.2), according to kenpom.com. The Tigers are ranked fourth in the ACC in rebounding margin (plus-5.7) – one spot above UNC – and are allowing just 4.3 transition points per game.
Those statistics don't bode well for North Carolina in its attempt to extend its home record against Clemson to 57-0 on Sunday.
On Tuesday, UNC assistant coach Hubert Davis offered a simple explanation for his team's struggles.
"We're having difficulty scoring and, for the most part, teams have figured us out," Davis said.
The second-year assistant pointed to three key areas where opponents have applied pressure – second-chance points, transition points and Marcus Paige.
In its 79-65 upset over No. 1 Michigan State on Dec. 4, UNC scored 19 second-chance points off 16 offensive rebounds and 12 fast break points to go along with Paige's 13 points. In Monday's 76-61 loss at Virginia, UNC scored 16 second-chance points off 17 offensive rebounds and two fast break points to go along with Paige's nine points.
That's a 17-point differential in those primary statistical categories.
The obvious benefit of UNC's high profile wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky is the tangible evidence of how well this team can potentially play. The Tar Heels must return to that level, or at least within shouting distance, to deliver a winning record over their final 13 regular season ACC contests.
"We have to understand that this can't be a point in the season where we just fold," Paige said following Monday's loss in Charlottesville. "Coach isn't going to give up; we're not going to give up. I still think we can be a lot better than we are and that starts in practice. We've really just got to dig deep and decide what kind of season we want to have."