WINSTON-SALEM, NC – With its third losing streak of four or more games ongoing and a difficult stretch of contests on the horizon, where will struggling North Carolina go from here?
The Tar Heels are coming off perhaps their most disappointing loss of the season, a 74-57 defeat at Wake Forest in a game they trailed by 26 points early in the second half. Wake went into the game having lost eight of its previous 10, like UNC, so it may also rank as the most bewildering performance of the season, as well.
So, at 10-14 overall, including 3-10 in the ACC, and the probability of the Heels not reaching the postseason, what is their next step?
“You’ve got to keep playing,” sophomore Leaky Black said, following Tuesday’s loss. “Honestly, this is our job right now (and) we’re not really doing our job well. So we’ve really got to take it seriously, more serious than what we’ve been doing. A lot of guys – we just really got to come in and compete.”
The most challenging thing for Carolina about its current four-game losing streak is that it commenced when Cole Anthony returned after missing seven weeks with a knee injury. The Heels had battled through all kinds of adversity, as the injuries and losses piled up, but they were starting to find some form.
Garrison Brooks looked like an All-ACC big man, Black was getting healthy and showing he could run a team at the point, and Brandon Robinson was starting to rain 3-pointers with near regularity.
So, with two straight wins in their back pockets and Anthony returning, thoughts of making a push to the NCAA Tournament wasn’t exactly crazy talk. Only that in retrospect it was.
A one-point loss to Boston College at home followed by an ugly-but-competitive defeat at No. 8 Florida State and an overtime loss to Duke, a game the Heels led by 13 with 3:56 remaining in regulation and Tuesday’s debacle has the Heels reeling.
They haven’t won a game with Anthony in uniform since the day after Thanksgiving, some 77 days ago. And UNC’s record now for the season versus the other bottom five teams in the ACC is 1-5 with the lone win at home over a Miami team that was forced to play a few walk ons that afternoon.
Some might ask what is left for the Tar Heels to play for with seven regualr season contests and at least one ACC Tournament game remaining?
“This is my last year, so I’m not going to give up,” said Christian Keeling, a graduate transfer who arrived in Chapel Hill last summer after playing his first three seasons at Charleston Southern. “This is not the season how I wanted it to go but I’m going to make the best of it. We’re going to try to win in this last stretch and try to go into the ACC Tournament with some energy.”
Generating energy means everyone being on the same page with respect to preparation, focus, attitude, and as Andrew Platek said Tuesday night, “Care.” The Heels have to care.
“All we can do is stay together as a unit and try to lock in and try to do everything we can as a team,” he said. “Try to get better, work on our sets, pay attention to detail, and honestly, just play harder. That’s the main thing.”
Up next is a visit from Virginia on Saturday night before trips to Notre Dame on Monday and Louisville the following weekend.
The challenge for the Tar Heels is twofold: Quality teams trending toward the postseason and their own psyche.