The Tar Heels are 12-6 overall and 1-2 in the ACC after falling at home 73-71 to Georgia Tech on Saturday. This wasn't one of those stub-your-toe defeats, it pretty much encapsulated the entire season for the struggling Heels, who have been stagnant in their development for the last month.
The Jekyll and Hyde Heels – mostly Hyde these days – put forth an embarrassing first-half effort as the talented Yellow Jackets built a 29-9 lead. Tech had a 13-possession advantage in the first 20 minutes when comparing offensive rebounds and turnovers. The Yellow Jackets led 42-28 at the intermission.
But Carolina played with pride in the second half. The Heels dove for loose balls, blocked and altered shots, limited entry passes, got into passing lanes, and played with rare focus on offense in just their second quality half of their last eight.
That it took falling behind by 20 to ignite this team is its greatest weakness. Forget the turnover issues, opponents' offensive rebounding, not having a true go-to guy, injuries and that some Heels might be playing out of position. None of that matters if confidence is waning or nonexistent.
"I'm not used to coaching Jayhawk basketball or Tar Heel basketball … without any confidence," said a despondent Roy Williams. "But, uh, we've put ourselves in this spot and we have to figure out a way to dig out of it. We can go belly-up, but I choose not to do that, and I told them that in the locker room."
To avoid an implosion, Carolina must first fully understand the root cause of its inconsistency.
Cold halves followed by good ones or evaporating big leads have seemingly been the norm. Carolina has looked like it could hang around the NCAA Tournament for a while in some stretches, yet in others it looks like it won't even be a part of the grand event.
UNC isn't going to replicate the 8-20 disaster of 2002. Ol' Roy is no Matt Doherty, and that's a good thing for everyone involved. But the Tar Heels are in danger of putting themselves in a precarious position with regard to earning an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
Leaving out Nevada, which lost at home to Utah State the other night, UNC is 2-6 against quality foes.
In addition, too many games against forgettable teams with RPIs higher than the federal deficit have helped put the Heels in the position of maybe having to play their way into the tournament. Quite frankly, the mood in the locker room doesn't exactly reek of confidence.
No wonder they are so inconsistent.
"That's something I would like to know, too," Deon Thompson said. "I really don't have the answer to that. I don't know why it has to take Coach to scream at us and all those things for us to really play with some fire and passion for a whole game. We definitely know it's there – you saw it there in the second half."
So, could the late-game effort and grit be a launching point to something positive?
"It definitely can be," Thompson said. "You can always use it as a springboard going into our next game against Wake on Wednesday and try and play with some fire and passion for 40 minutes."
But it just doesn't happen by osmosis. The team has reached a fork in the road.
"I guess you could say that," Marcus Ginyard said.
The dichotomy is a delicate balance between players relaxing emotionally while also understanding they must consistently bring a lunch pail to the hardwood every time out like they did in Saturday's second half.
"It's an interesting dynamic for sure," Ginyard said. "But you have to find that middle ground where you're comfortable and relaxed but you're also out there with a high level of intensity."
And that is the most important issue facing the Heels. If they can get this worked out there's a chance solutions to the other problems may fall into place. Otherwise, the Tar Heels won't be on the radar in March.