After losing to Florida State by 33…

It has been a busy week, but given the purpose here of recording my experience of Carolina basketball, I thought it was important to write a quick post before we moved on from Saturday’s disaster against Florida State.

As bad as the ACC is, tonight’s game against Virginia Tech will be our final chance for a significant ACC win prior to hosting Duke on February 8 (this game itself is only significant for being on the road, where we are 0 for our last 3). A loss tonight almost ensures that we enter that game with lingering doubts about the caliber and character of this team, and it would be difficult to shake those doubts, especially as they relate to our status as a national title contender, without an emphatic victory in that game.

So to avoid that sort of monumental pressure for a team that doesn’t seem to handle those situations that well yet, we need this win tonight in Blacksburg, and it would be great if it were decisive. If its not decisive, perhaps we play well but require a late score by Harrison Barnes to win, a staple of last season, and of the team’s personality, that has not appeared this year.

For the record, I think its highly unlikely that we lose tonight, even though Blacksburg is a tough place to play and Virginia Tech, like us, has been underwhelming and badly needs a statement win. But I also don’t think we get the corner-turning closure to Saturday. Reality is likely in between, mostly because that seems to be where this team is stuck: UNC has far too much talent playing in a lousy league to fall too far, yet we lack the toughness to escape the doubts and rise above the rest of the league even though our talent says we should. My prediction: Virginia Tech is not good enough to beat us unless we forget to show up on defense for a second game in a row, but we aren’t confident and angry enough to bury them. We will go through some offensive struggles at times – mostly due to lack of focus – that deprive us of an inspiring win.

Some observations on the team:

The wide-spread doubts about the intensity and character of this team are well founded, and they date back to the disastrous 2010 season. When Barnes, Bullock and Marshall arrived on campus, they got us over the talent hump, but none filled the void that hadn’t yet been filled by Zeller or Henson of a passionate, motivating force of intensity. That trait simply isn’t in the genes of Zeller or Henson, leaving Barnes and Marshall as the best candidates.

Both players have been widely praised for being intelligent students of the game; both play basketball with their brains exceptionally well, evidenced by Marshall’s methodical scanning of the court as he dribbles and by Barnes’ meticulous body control driving to the basket. But neither, particularly Barnes, gets to the basket as instinctively as Ty Lawson, or to use an unfortunate recent example, Nolan Smith.

Last season Kendall Marshall and Bobby Frasor exchanged tweets in which Marshall criticized fans for hating Duke and resisted Frasor’s admonition that he himself should hate them a little more. Frasor, of course, is right, and I think that Marshall’s inclination toward appreciation rather than dislike is in the same vein as his and Barnes’ approach to basketball. These are thinking individuals, but, without sacrificing the benefits of their smarts, both need to run on a little bit more raw emotion in order to lead UNC in embracing a new personality.

When you lose to a mediocre team that had been playing like a bad team by 33 points, it is absolutely time to have a discussion about how good UNC actually is. Though there should be obvious caution in drawing conclusions based on one game – a pervasive and lazy flaw in sports journalism, a world dominated by sensationalism. The most egregious example of this was closet Carolina hater Caulton Tudor’s predictable column that inexplicably concluded that the Heels are no longer Final Four contenders.

The nation as a whole is not good enough to eliminate us from that category, especially when we lost by one at Kentucky in what remains the best played game of the season across the nation. Status as a Final Four contender may seem like a high bar to a shameless Wolfpack apologist, but it is a low one for the Heels, and one below which we will not under any circumstance sink.

But we don’t need to stoop to such ridiculous exaggerations to acknowledge that Carolina isn’t (relatively) good right now. This team has serious offensive struggles due to lack of consistent weapons, and unlike 2010 Duke (the only champion in recent memory with similar struggles) we don’t seem equipped to bail ourselves out from behind the arc. While it’s not difficult to see this team in the Final Four, since depending on match-ups it may not even have to beat a very good team to get there, it is harder to envision this team actually cutting down the nets.

Though almost any Carolina fan at the beginning of the season would have said failing to win a title in April would be a failure – a major disappointment that borders on deprivation of something due – that is no longer truly the case. While we don’t need to worry about Caulton Tudor’s thought that we are only average – we’re unambiguously not average, but well above – we should worry that the mental toughness issues will emerge at the wrong time. When you have to win six consecutive games, there are far too many chances for that to happen, and for that reason, I don’t think anyone will be shocked, or sensing any cosmic unfairness (as we would have in 2009) if this team comes up short. As good as this team is, they seem more destined to join the many Carolina teams pre-Roy Williams that departed title-less, rather than join the 2005 and 2009 groups.

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