Seven weeks ago, North Carolina fans would have been more accepting of the type of play that's defined the back end of their program's current 12-game winning streak, which is the longest in ACC play since the 1986-87 squad went undefeated (14-0) in the regular season.
But seven weeks ago UNC was 11-7 (1-4 ACC) and not even in bubble consideration for the NCAA Tournament. What's happened since has been one of the more memorable runs in recent history. There has been a noticeable drop, however, in quality of play over the past week.
In the first nine wins of this streak, UNC was toppling opponents by 13.4 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting (39.2 from 3) while holding its ACC counterparts to 41.9 percent shooting.
Over the last three games, UNC is edging its opponents by 2.3 points per game. The Tar Heels are shooting 44.6 percent (34.1 from 3) and allowing its opposition to shoot 44.0 percent.
Those statistics aren't against NCAA Tournament quality competition, either. N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame all have losing conference records and combine for a 2-21 record against RPI Top-50 opponents. The Wolfpack (No. 62) is the only one of the three residing in the RPI Top-100.
On Monday, UNC matched a season-low for points in a half with 22 after halftime, needing over 14 minutes of game action to eclipse 10 points. The Fighting Irish, on the other hand, scored 22 points on their opening 12 possessions.
UNC head coach Roy Williams has made a habit of entering the locker room and informing his players of how much better they can actually play, according to point guard Nate Britt.
"We've talked about how we have to pick it up, especially the intensity level, the last few games," Britt said. "That's just something we're trying to work on right now."
In addition to the various defensive breakdowns in the overtime win at N.C. State, UNC played well enough to build a nine-point lead in Blacksburg and a 14-point lead against Notre Dame before allowing both teams to rally and have a chance to win in the final minute.
When asked what concerns had been raised by his team's recent play, Williams replied: "Everything."
"I told them in the locker room and I said on Saturday, ‘to have a really good year you have to win some games ugly,'" the 11th-year UNC head coach told reporters following Monday's 63-61 victory. "I'm tired of wining games ugly. It's better than losing games ugly. I really thought that we'd have a tremendous sense of urgency today. We played so much harder in practice yesterday than we did in the game today. We learned those lessons early in the season but we've let them slip by us these last couple of games."
Sophomore guard Marcus Paige, whose emergence on the court has paralleled his ascension to team spokesperson in the locker room, set a solemn tone in the players' lounge after the game.
"The effort level hasn't been there," Paige said. "It's mind-boggling. When you win, you want to keep winning and play better and better, but we've had some lapses lately."
In theory, any intensity concerns should be self-correcting heading into the regular season finale against No. 4 Duke at Cameron Indoor. Rivalry ramifications aside, Saturday's contest will determine the No. 3 seed in next week's ACC Tournament as well as giving the winner the inside track to the Raleigh, N.C. pod for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
"If that doesn't fire us up as a team, then we shouldn't be playing," Paige said. "We'll have a week to get our minds right and hopefully right the ship that's still going in the right direction but starting to veer off. We just need to come together a little bit better."
Such corrections are easier to address in the midst of a 12-game winning streak.