PORTLAND – We should have learned our lesson from UCLA a year ago, the latest college team to catch fire and make a Final Four appearance following a ho-hum regular-season. The Bruins returned just about everyone and were the preseason No. 2 team in the country, but were unable to duplicate the magic and pick up the momentum that led them from the First Four to the Final Four at the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
Let’s face it: The Tar Heels were a disappointment for the better part of last season. Sure, they went 15-5 in the ACC, but the league wasn’t what it once was, even despite its postseason success. UNC was admittedly soft in blowout losses to Tennessee, Kentucky, Miami, Wake Forest and Duke. That’s not mentioning the Tar Heels losing to Pittsburgh at home on Feb. 16.
But a switch flipped on March 5. That’s when UNC made the short drive to Durham and ruined Coach K’s home finale at Cameron Indoor Stadium. That performance also punched the Tar Heels’ NCAA tourney ticket, and almost two weeks later the shocking-yet-magical run to the national title game began with a rout against Marquette.
North Carolina played together with passion and intensity, looking anything but soft. They went from being almost unbearable to watch earlier in the season to an enjoyable — even captivating — viewing experience during the postseason.
Armando Bacot made the smart decision to take the NIL bag and return to Chapel Hill for his senior season and a chance to finish what the team came so close to doing last April. The starting backcourt of Caleb Love and RJ Davis came back, and so did fellow starter Leaky Black. Head coach Hubert Davis added one of the best transfers in the country in Pete Nance, and also brought in a freshman class that included top-ranked recruits like Seth Trimble (No. 38) and Jalen Washington (No. 52).
But we should have seen this underwhelming start coming. Nance isn’t Brady Manek, and we just assumed that the Tar Heels would pick up where they left off.
That’s just not how it works.
The Tar Heels began the season as the preseason No. 1, but after a miserable trip to the PK85 in which they were a couple of possessions against the University of Portland away from returning with an 0-3 record in the invitational, they have fallen to No. 18 in the latest AP Poll — and that’s probably being generous after dropping back-to-back games to Iowa State and Alabama.
Davis, ever the optimist, was still smiling after the entertaining-yet-ugly four-overtime loss to the Crimson Tide on Sunday.
“I’m a positive guy. I like being positive,” Davis said. “I know we left this tournament 1-2, but why would I be discouraged about the way we competed and played? That would be negligible on my part to walk away thinking this is a disappointment. Second of all, it’s only November.”
Davis knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get this team — a group that was called “soft” a year ago and consistently questioned up until their Final Four run — to ignore the ass-kissing and brand-new expectations entering this season.
“It’s going to take time,” Davis said. “This is a new experience for us. It’s not going to happen overnight. They are trying to figure it out. Just because we have so many guys coming back, it’s a different team. This is this year’s team, not last year’s.”
Next up for this year’s edition of the Tar Heels is a trip to Bloomington on Wednesday where they will face a top-10 Indiana team. There are also neutral-site contests against Ohio State on Dec. 17 and Michigan on Dec. 21, along with 20 league games left on the schedule.
Plenty of time.
No one is writing off the Tar Heels just yet, but there’s enough evidence to wonder whether 2022’s one-month run was fluky, and this team is closer to the pre-March 5 Tar Heels.
Love is hit-or-miss — and he’s got the ultimate green light, averaging more than 17 shots per game, nearly twice as many as Bacot — but he’s made just 25 percent of his threes this season. When Love’s on, he can win a game by himself, like he did against UCLA in the Sweet 16 and Duke in the national semifinal.
But he was 13-of-36 from the field in the loss to Alabama, and his shot selection much of the time can be head-scratching.
“He’s a volume-scoring point guard and someone that needs to be more in tune with his teammates,” one coach who faced North Carolina this season told me. “Sometimes he plays too selfish.”
While Nance is shooting 42 percent from three, he isn’t Manek. Teams don’t respect Nance nearly as much as they did with Manek, and in turn that creates less space for Love, Davis and even Bacot.
“Nance is nowhere as good as Manek,” another coach who played UNC said to me. “Manek was a lot tougher.”
Davis told me before the season that he was going to use his bench, and that not doing so might have cost him a national title a year ago.
Nothing has changed yet. Love (38.4 mpg), Davis (36.4), Bacot (34.6), Black (34.6) and Nance (31.1) are all logging big minutes thus far, and Puff Johnson is the only reserve who has gotten consistent run off the bench.
“They have a lack of real depth,” remarked one coach who faced the Tar Heels. “They have no real production outside of their starting five.”
And just three true threats to score in Love, Davis and Bacot.
Perimeter shooting is also an issue, as the Tar Heels are shooting just 31 percent from three as a team, which ranks 278th in the country. The perimeter duo of Love and Davis, who have taken nearly 60 percent of the team’s shots from deep, are shooting 26% from deep. A year ago, North Carolina shot 36 percent as a team, which ranked 65th in the country.
“It’s different. We’ve got to find our swagger as a group. Right now we’re finding ourselves,” Bacot said. “But you saw it last year. Once we hit our full potential, we can definitely be the best team. Right now we’re nowhere near as good as we should be or will be.”
“It’s going to take some time,” Love added. “It took all the way until March last year.”
Or maybe we just need to come to the realization and understanding that this is what North Carolina is: A good team, but certainly not a great one.