Sure, there are three regular season contests and the ACC Tournament remaining on UNC’s current schedule. The possibility does exist for the Tar Heels to split the remainder of their games to claim an invitation to the N.I.T. or even sneak into the Big Dance with a four-day winning streak at the Greensboro Coliseum in two weeks.
And if this North Carolina team had provided any hint of the slightest bit of improvement over the last six weeks, one might be inclined to latch onto that optimistic view of life in Chapel Hill. But it’s not happening. This season was effectively over last Saturday in Chestnut Hill after Roy Williams had convinced his squad that a victory over Boston College would be the first of five straight wins heading into the ACC Tournament.
The Eagles crushed those hopes with a 24-7 second-half spurt that served as a microcosm of the Tar Heels’ 2009-10 campaign. Concentration lapses, poor shot selections, costly turnovers and defensive woes have plagued this program for nearly three months.
“At the beginning of the season we played like nobody could stop us,” freshman guard Dexter Strickland said following Wednesday night’s loss to Florida State. “We judged teams on the way they looked and we didn’t play to our full potential. We let one team knock us out, then everybody started knocking us out and we just lost confidence.”
Then an interesting thing happened – Strickland went a step further and opened the doors to 2010-11, saying, “I think next year everybody is going to be hungry, come out to play and we’re going to have a good season.”
For most programs, offseason improvement can be measured with statistics. Is Player A hitting a higher percentage of his field goal attempts? Has Player B increased his assist-to-turnover ratio?
And while that analysis will be critical for North Carolina to prove that this season was nothing more than a fluke in Roy Williams’ two-decade reign over college basketball, the most important development must take place between the ears of the returning roster.
For John Henson, the areas for that growth are painfully obvious.
“Intensity, effort and focus,” the freshman forward said. “Those are the three main words this team is missing. When talent is equal, that’s what decides games… I just want to get back to the Carolina Way. Whatever it takes, we’re going to have to do. Make sacrifices and then everyone will prosper.”
Confidence undoubtedly plays a role in this assumed reversal as well. Strickland admitted to hesitating on some shots due to a lack of self-assurance moments before suggesting that basketball was as much as 70 percent confidence and 30 percent technique.
The human brain is a funny thing – Ed Davis told reporters early in the season that UNC was overconfident and taking teams too lightly, and now a lack of that fundamental trait has latched on like the plague. No wonder a teenager’s mind provides the perfect setting for a psychiatric science project.
A clean slate may seem like a magic button at this point of the season, especially when you add in the talented freshman class of Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall heading to Chapel Hill this summer.
Williams, of course, doesn’t spend too much time looking into the future. After all, he’s desperately trying to extend his current streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances to 21 next month.
“I’m not sitting down and drawing lineups up of Reggie Bullock doing this or if we can do this with Harrison Barnes or Kendall Marshall,” Williams said on Friday. “I really don’t.”
But he also offered a warning to his returning players about bearing the heavy weight of this season and using it as motivation going forward.
“If the losses or something that happened this year make the kids not work as hard, then I recruited the wrong dadgum kids and they need to get the heck out of Dodge,” Williams said.
When the 2009-10 campaign draws to a close, whether it be in Greensboro in two weeks or maybe several days later in the N.I.T., all parties involved will be relieved to put this season in the books. And for opposing fan bases and national media types that are not close to this program, the aforementioned topics probably cover all of the problems at hand.
But the disconnect between the UNC fan base and this current basketball team runs a tad deeper. While the lunatic fringe may feel entitled to national championship-caliber squads year-in and year-out, the average Tar Heel fan’s issue with this team goes back several decades – 100 years, to be exact.
It’s about respecting the uniform and the jerseys in the rafters. Sophomore Tyler Zeller is one of the few Tar Heels that understands that side of the equation.
“I don’t know if all of my teammates realize what the North Carolina name means,” Zeller said on Friday. “[When teams] are playing North Carolina, they’re going to come as prepared as possible. They’re going to get in extra shots that week. They’re going to come and be ready to play… So we’ve just got to come out and we’ve got to play harder and get after them even more.”
There are a myriad of problems that North Carolina must correct this summer in order to quarantine this season’s nightmare, but securing the fundamentals of Tar Heel basketball is the first critical step.