Tar Heels Must Buck History

By Adam Lucas | 7 Comment(s) | Posted

Over the next 24 hours, you’re going to hear a lot of comparisons between this year’s Tar Heels and the previous three squads that started 0-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Are there really any similarities? Here’s a look at those three previous teams:

2009: Started 0-2 with an 85-78 loss at home to Boston College, and then a road loss at fourth-ranked Wake Forest, 92-89.

What’s the same? An 0-2 start left a talented team confused. “I do believe our team had some doubts,” Roy Williams said when he looked back after the conclusion of the 2009 campaign. “I think our confidence was shaken a little bit at that time.” To make matters worse, it looked like two local teams (Duke and Wake) were going to be serious conference—and maybe national—contenders. This year, the Tar Heel misery is heightened by the knowledge that Duke and possibly NC State may contend for the league crown. The Tar Heels had to go on the road to snap their 0-2 streak; they got an 83-61 win at Virginia.

What’s different? Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green played on the 2009 team. One of the defeats was at fourth-ranked Wake, a team that was playing very, very well early in the season. Prior to the defeat to BC, Carolina had started the year 13-0, including total demolitions of eighth-ranked Notre Dame and 13th-ranked Michigan State, with the latter coming in a virtual home game for the Spartans (a scenario that would be repeated a few months later, this time for the national title). Winning at Virginia, which finished 4-12 in the league, 10-18 overall, is not quite the same as winning at Tallahassee.

What happened? Someone still on this year's team played a key role. In the immediate aftermath of the loss at Wake, Williams went in the locker room and played the psychologist rather than the motivator. He explained that his 1991 Kansas team had also started 0-2 in the conference, and ended the year playing for the national title. “Everyone was kind of jumping off the ship around us,” Bobby Frasor said. “We didn’t have any more bandwagon fans. Everyone said, ‘Oh, they can’t play defense,’ but we still believed. And Coach still had faith in us.”

1997: Started 0-3 in the conference, with a blowout road loss at second-ranked Wake Forest, an 85-75 home loss to 19th ranked Maryland, and a 75-63 loss at Virginia.

What’s the same? The 0-3 start had Tar Heel fans openly questioning the head coach. Yes, there was a time people weren’t sure if Dean Smith could still coach. Carolina hadn’t had too many high-quality wins in the nonconference season, as they lost their only game against a ranked team (the season opener to Arizona, and the two teams would meet again with the same result in the last game of the year). The best pre-ACC win was probably a road victory over Princeton in front of a very hostile crowd. There was some occasional murmuring among the fan base about the rotation, as no Tar Heel fan alive in 1997 ever thought Vince Carter played enough minutes. Carolina also had a very tough conference schedule in 1997; they closed the regular season against four teams ranked in the nation’s top 15.

What’s different? Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Ed Cota and Shammond Williams played on the 1997 team. The Tar Heels had a core of players who had already played together for at least one full season, and had experienced some ups and downs during a 21-11 1996 campaign that ended with Texas Tech’s Darvin Ham shattering the backboard in the NCAA Tournament. Even with the 0-3 start, the Tar Heels never fell out of the national rankings. They were also riding over 30 years of history of finishing no lower than third in the conference; falling apart really wasn’t an option.

 What happened? In hindsight, 1997 is one of the coaching signatures of Dean Smith’s career; the Tar Heels went on a 16-game winning streak, won the ACC Tournament, and made the Final Four. It’s often forgotten just how close it was to being a disaster, as Carolina needed one of the most miraculous comebacks of Smith’s career to beat NC State at the Smith Center and avoid falling to 0-4. Then, as Smith frequently pointed out, they still finished the first half of league play at 3-5, including an 80-73 loss at Duke, before starting that winning streak.

1980: Started 0-2 in the conference, with road losses at Clemson and 13th-ranked Virginia.

What’s the same? Carolina had injury issues, with James Worthy’s broken ankle (in case you’re wondering why Roy Williams is so vigilant about wet spots on the floor, his injury was caused by slipping on a wet spot) sidelining the talented freshman for the rest of the season. While nothing the Tar Heels have encountered so far has been that serious, they have seen four members of the rotation lose at least one game to injury, and it’s fair to say that Dexter Strickland is not fully back up to normal speed after a torn ACL one year ago. The 1980 Tar Heels had some trouble on the road, going just 5-4 away from Carmichael.

What’s different? Prior to beginning league play, Carolina already had a big nonconference win, topping fifth-ranked Indiana in Bloomington. Even without Worthy, the Tar Heels still had junior Al Wood and senior Mike O’Koren on the roster, so their two leading scorers had plenty of experience and had a good idea how to steer the ship out of troubled waters.

What happened? The Tar Heels snapped back with a four-game ACC winning streak, including a decisive 82-67 win at top-ranked Duke. But the streak ended with a home loss to Maryland on Jan. 20, the same day that Worthy broke his ankle. Still, Wood and O’Koren pushed the Tar Heels to a 10-2 finish over the remainder of the regular season. Carolina lost in the ACC Tournament semifinals and in their first game of the NCAA Tournament to Texas A&M.

Overall, it seems fairly apparent that this year is a very different season from any of the three previous 0-2 campaigns. Each of the three previous clubs had at least one player who had already qualified—prior to the 0-2 season—to have his jersey in the rafters or was on his way to qualification that same season (1980 had O’Koren, who was first-team All-America in 1979; 1997 had Jamison, who was second-team All-America that year before earning retirement status as national player of the year in 1998; 2009 had ’08 national player of the year Hansbrough).

The three previous teams also had a strong upperclassman presence  playing key roles, both in leadership and in on-court production. The 1980 team had Wood and O’Koren. The 1997 squad had junior Shammond Williams, plus the Jamison-Carter-Okulaja sophomore trio that had already played together for a season. And the ’09 team was perhaps the last of the modern era of college basketball with such a talented group of juniors and seniors.

In order to pull out of the spin, this year’s team will have to be unique in Tar Heel history. The job starts tomorrow in Tallahassee. Is there anything either in Carolina's past or based on what you've seen in this year's team that makes you believe they either will or won't do it? Let us know in the comments below.

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  1. Chris's avatar
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    The problem that I am noticing, and maybe I am wrong, is that this team doesn't seem to enjoy playing together. I think they put too much pressure on themselves and just need to get back to enjoying basketball. There are very high expectations being a Heel, and I think they need to understand that for them to turn this around they will need to play better, collectively, as a team, not individuals. In all aspects of life, the more you communicate the better the situation. They need more communication on the court and from what I have seen thus far, I am not hopeful it will happen this year. If someone steps up and becomes a leader then maybe it can turnaround. We shall see.
  2. Jason's avatar
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    This team actually reminds me of the 2009-2010 team...the NIT team. From similarities with the schedule to the roster makeup, this is 2010 all over again. Let's not fool ourselves, this is not a tournament team. There is no fix. How many times this season has a simple inbound pass been thrown away?

    With a home-home vs Miami, FSU, Maryland, State and Duke, there are a lot of probable losses there.

    I'm not jumping off any bandwagon, I'm a Heel through and through, it's just time to admit that this team is not very good.
  3. Eric's avatar
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    There is enough talent on this team to have a decent season but the group is not self aware and our coach seems unwilling to change or admit that he is wrong. I am a huge fan of the team and the coach and I always will be but in order to fix a problem you must first understand the problem.

    The line up & rotation is the problem. Desmond Hubert should not be playing when the game has not yet been decided. Marcus Page and Dexter Strickland should not be playing together in the backcourt.

    With the current starting 5 there is a gross lack of balance and offensive fire power. That would be okay if the unit was terrific defensively but they are not.

    Brice Johnson should be starting for Desmond Hubert. Yes Johnson is slight and gets pushed around in the post and he struggles at times to defend but that is true of Hubert as well. Johnson shoots a great percentage and he is the only one that can give the Heels a low block scorer. He is far more efficient on the block than every other UNC player including McAdoo.

    Hairston should be starting on the wing with Bullock. Strickland is a 2 guard that can't shoot 3s. He is really a tweener that would be best used off the bench to spell Page at the 1 and hopefully provide some defensive intensity (though this year he is an average defender- possibly because the knee injury has taken some of his quickness).

    Roy should have shortened his rotation from the start of the season. Hubert and Simmons are great kids that work extremely hard but they are not ready to play at this level and have limited upside. All the minutes they have played should have been given to James & Johnson- those two players weren't ready to play either but they have massive upside and we NEED them to play now. James should be spelling both Johnson & McAdoo with no other bigs playing until the game is decided. Tokoto can play 8-10 minutes at the 3 or slide to the 4 when Roy employs his small line up. He is another young player with lots of potential that can play a decent role off the bench. McDonald should be backing up Hairston at the 2 giving Roy the option of going with the hot shooter at that spot.

    Unfortunately none of the above will happen and lots of fans and media will continue to draw the wrong conclusions. The freshmen shot 12-20 against Miami. The rest of the team shot 12-40. The problem is not youth or inexperience- the problem is the rotation and commitment to older players who are not effective.

    McAdoo is a good player but he is not great. He can't play with his back to the basket YET and he can't create his own shot. He excels in one area-intercepting passes on the perimeter and dunking. He can't be the guy you build the team around because he is too limited. You can't tell that kid to take 20 shots a game because he isn't ready. He turns it over too much, shoots a poor percentage, & he is a poor FT shooter. Unfortunately he has been made out to be a superstar and it would appear that both the player & the coaching staff agree with that erroneous assessment.

    Bullock is the best player and showed that against UVA. Sadly the toll of mounting pressure & losses is already showing a negative effect on everyone and especially Reggie. In the first half last night he was again very good and played like he did at UVA. In the second half he forced things and got frustrated which in the end led to possibly his worst shooting night ever (3-8 from 3 is respectable but 1-8 from 2 is not at all like Reggie).

    The damage to this team's confidence & psyche may at this point be insurmountable and the season may be lost in terms of team success in the conference & post season play. That said I really hope that Coach will make changes for the sake of both the current guys and for next year's team as well.

    Starting McAdoo, Johnson, Bullock, Hairston, & Page would be a huge step in the right direction. That is a group that can be competitive and something you can build upon.

    I also hope the media folks will stop spouting the same nonsensical explanations. We are not too young, we are not too inexperienced, we are not without talent, and McAdoo is not a superstar that just needs the ball more. Lots of people in the media seem to be reading other peoples' stories and re-printing them rather than watching the games and writing the truth.
  4. AJ's avatar
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    Eric---It seems you are in my head and typing what I want to say. All your points are absolutely right on the mark. I wish we could get someone to listen to truth. The starting five you spelled out would help in so many ways, and limiting the rotation is right on spot as well. I do think Hubert can be thrown in there for a few more minutes than you believe, but he has to have a solid offensive group in with him, one that can spread the floor, because he demands absolutely no attention from a defender at all. Anyhow, I'll always love the Heels and am proud to be an alum, even if Roy's lack of flexibility with the system and his crazy approach to using/not using timeouts continues to makes me lose it from time to time. GO HEELS!
  5. Brian's avatar
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    Shortening the rotation is what needs to be doen here. Roy unfortunately on many occasssions loves to go deep into the bench. Hubert is a none factor,and Bryce Johnson needs to see much more playing time. Hairston to me is the x factor. He is the teams best free throw shooter, and he can be a big mismatch advantage to us at the 2 spot.He is a great shooter, and a guy who can get to line. Lord know we lack that. I go with PAIGE,HAIRSTON,BULLOCK,MCADOO AND JOHNSON.
    Strickland off the bench to give Paige a breather, and Mcdonald off the bench for instant offense. Joel James can sub for either Johnson or McAdoo. That's a far ass I would go. Maybe bring Tokoto in the breath at the 3 or 4, but thats it. Gotta tighten up this rotation and build with it. Strickland has to become a bench player. He's just not the same guy. Let him earn his minutes back.
  6. Richie T.'s avatar
    Richie T.
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    Eric is EXACTLY right!
  7. Lonnie W.'s avatar
    Lonnie W.
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    What he (Eric) said. His rotation of Paige, Harriston, Bullock, McAdoo and Johnson is spot on.

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