At different points over the past two games, North Carolina coach Roy Williams took a look at the group of players he put on the floor, less for the play-by-play and more for perspective.
One of those nights, the Tar Heels had to fight off a Georgia Tech team that stood as the only winless team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The other, they fell into a 28-point hole to a North Carolina State team they had beaten 13 straight times, and lost, 91-83.
There were times, Williams said, when he looked out at the floor and saw all four of the team’s freshmen on the court at the same time. The Tar Heels’ only scholarship senior, Dexter Strickland, was less than a year removed from ACL surgery. It had been even less time since their only scholarship junior, Reggie Bullock, tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee one game before the start of the ACC Tournament.
The team in front of Williams was not only young, he said, but in terms of veterans, inexperienced. Yet he doesn’t want to use that as an excuse for the Tar Heels’ relative struggles so far this season. As North Carolina visits Conte Forum Tuesday night to face Boston College, Williams wasn’t in the mood to treat basketball like babysitting.
“We’ve played, gosh, I think 19 games right now,” said Williams. “We should be better now than we were. That’s where we’ve got to keep progressing and being able to handle the difficult situations.”
No one rang any alarms earlier in the season when North Carolina (13-6, 3-3) lost to Butler and Indiana, but with each loss after that (Texas, Virginia, Miami, then NC State) the red flags started to become harder to ignore. The NC State defeat made for an interesting boiling point for Williams, who refused to take any consolation in cutting that 28-point deficit to 5 in the late going. Instead, he said moral victories were for “pansies.”
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Williams said. “There’s not a word that you can use that explains it because extremely is not powerful enough, but it’s extremely frustrating. But the fact of the matter is it’s there and we’ve got to do everything we can every day to try to get better and try to be able to handle those tough situations.”
The Tar Heels have a checklist of things they still have to learn.
Their star sophomore, James Michael McAdoo, is leading the team in scoring and rebounding (14.6 points, 8.4 rebounds) but is still adjusting to being the focal point.
Sophomore shooting guard PJ Hairston is averaging 15 points the past four games, but he was benched for losing out on a loose ball because he jogged for it when his opponent dived.
The veteran Strickland, who had to eat his words after the Tar Heels fell to an NC State team he once called “the least of our worries,” learned no win is guaranteed.
But Williams doesn’t want his team to think that learning is an excuse for losing.
“Coach just let us know, when we do things our own way we end up digging ourselves a hole,” freshman point guard Marcus Paige said. “But when we buy into the system we’re able to do good things. We’ve just got to buy into what coach says.
“He made it very clear, he’s not a fan of moral victories. He’s trying to teach us to be the same way. Just because we cut down a 28-point lead to 5 at one point, it doesn’t make the loss hurt any less. They still beat us. Coach believes you can get a moral victory from winning as well. The whole learning-from-experience thing is great, but you can learn from winning as well.”
In his 10 seasons at North Carolina, Williams has won with young teams, lost with veteran teams and vice versa.
The Tar Heels aren’t as talent-rich as past years, but by no means are they lacking for it. Their five McDonald’s All-Americans might be the fewest they’ve had on the roster since 2007-08, but it’s still more than some schools ever have seen (Bill Curley is the only one to play at Boston College).
“I think saying that we’re young is kind of an excuse,” said Paige. “We have guys that have been here for a while that are being used for us and our young guys have gotten a lot of minutes in those games. By now, saying we’re a young team is kind of an excuse. We’ve all been on the court long enough to establish chemistry and stuff like that, now we’ve just got to play better.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.