But the record doesn't lie. Duke's stubborn insistence in playing straight-up man-to-man for the first 35 minutes played right into the Tar Heels' strength, as Carolina was able to spread the floor and take advantage of equal or superior quickness in individual matchups. The Heels moved both the ball and themselves pretty well against the man, had one of the year's better nights shooting from downtown, as well as some great one-on-one stuff from Felton.
All that wasn't enough, unfortunately. The real question now is whether the positive things the Heels should take away from the loss can outweigh the disappointment of another loss (as well as sheer exhaustion) in the players' hearts and minds.
Indeed, the time of reckoning has arrived for the 2003 edition of the Tar Heels. Carolina now confronts the two absolutely must-win games in Chapel Hill over the next seven days against an improved Florida State team and a Virginia team that stuck it to the Heels in Charlottesville.
It would have been no shock to preseason pundits to suppose that North Carolina would find itself at 11-10 at this stage of the year, though no one could have predicted the route by which the Heels have arrived at that mark. But even before we knew anything about injuries or how this young team might handle the rigors of ACC play, it was clear on paper that the first go-round through the ACC would be the toughest, and that a prolonged January losing streak was very possible. Carolina has played five of its first eight games on the road, leaving the Heels with the chance to spend most of the next four weeks at home.
Therein lies an opportunity -- to deliver some payback to the likes of Virginia, Tech, and N.C. State, and turn an ugly 2-6 into a more respectable 7-9 (or even better). Given Carolina's strength of schedule and the fact that the NCAA committee weights the last 10 games more heavily and takes injuries into account, a UNC team that went 7-9, won a game in the ACC Tournament, and had Sean May back would have a compelling case for a tournament bid.
But opportunity does not equal probability, let alone certainty. Carolina did some good things against both Wake and Duke, good enough to make it reasonable to think that the Heels might be able to knock down the door and move from moral victories to real victories, starting now. Being a good team in the home stretch will take more than just great effort. It will also take substantially improved execution, on both ends of the court, but most notably on the offensive end.
Carolina is now 4-8 since Sean May broke his foot (counting the Iona loss). During that time, Carolina has shot 278 of 730 from the field, a 38.1% average. Just how bad is 38.1% shooting? Consider the 2001 Florida State Seminoles. That team went 9-21, and managed 42.7% shooting for the year. Or the 2000 Clemson Tigers. That team went 10-20, and hit 40.5% from the floor. Or even the 2002 North Carolina Tar Heels. That team went 8-20, but still connected on 43.9% of its shots.
In short, Carolina's offensive execution in the past month has been one or two notches below the level set by the worst teams in the ACC in recent years. Going into the Duke game, Carolina was shooting 41.4% from the floor; the other 8 ACC schools were averaging 46.0%. Why is this the case?
In considering that question, it's important to make a distinction between explanation and excuse-making. There is no doubt that Carolina's efforts have been hampered by the absence of Sean May. But does this mean 37-38% shooting should be accepted as the best this team is capable of doing, especially given the individual talent that clearly exists on this team? To answer yes to that question is to condemn Carolina to not only double-digit losses in the ACC but possibly a losing record overall in 2003. The Tar Heels simply must either get better shots from their offense, or (less likely) make more of the shots they are getting now, with the players that are now available. May's unavailability can be plausibly used to explain why it's harder for this team to get open shots, but it shouldn't be used to excuse patently poor shot selection, stagnant off the ball movement, or unnecessarily forcing shots early in the shot clock.
There's no reason to think that this group of players is devoid of basketball intelligence, or particularly selfish, or possessed of some other handicap that would prevent this group, even without May, reaching the 44% FG mark achieved against Duke much more consistently. Probably the single biggest temptation to avoid is the too quick three-pointer; indeed it's noteworthy that in each of the three quality wins (St. Johns, Clemson, Connecticut) the May-less Heels have recorded, they took fewer than 20 threes, and they attempted just 21 against Duke Wednesday night. In the five previous conference losses, in contrast, Carolina took over 28 three-pointers per contest.
It would be nice if Carolina knew that they would face nothing but straight up man-to-man from teams without a major post presence the rest of the way -- one would have to like the Tar Heels' chances of an offensive resurgence if that were the case, based on the Duke game. It's not going to be that simple, unfortunately; Carolina will also surely have to confront zone defenses, triangle-in-twos, and other tactics designed to frustrate talented one-on-one players like Felton and McCants. Lasting improvement consists not in occasional good shooting nights but being able to fluently handle a variety of defenses and get consistently good shots game in and game out.
We'll soon find out whether the Heels can get enough of that lasting improvement in time to preserve aspirations for a return to the NCAAs. Carolina has the opportunity in the next week to turn the season back in the right direction; but while that opportunity is very real, it is also the last the 2003 edition of the Heels is likely to be offered.
Thad Williamson is the author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/carolinabook.html. Thad welcomes your emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.