CHAPEL HILL After perhaps the most stunning loss of Roy Williams tenure at North Carolina, there were no words in the locker room. Just quiet. This was 13 months ago, after a 90-57 defeat at Florida State the worst defeat of Williams 10 years as UNCs head coach.
His players sat quietly, their expressions blank and emotionless. Williams met with reporters, and said there was nothing that could be said.
The number 33, the Heels margin of defeat, hung for the remainder of the season in their locker room a permanent reminder. More than a year later, similar losses have become so common that the Tar Heels no longer seem all that surprised.
I dont think were getting used to losing, Dexter Strickland, UNCs senior guard, said following an 87-61 loss Saturday at Miami. I wouldnt say that. But I think were getting used to not responding well. Were not responding against good teams. Something has to change.
Saturdays loss was the Tar Heels worst this season, and the third-worst under Williams. Already this season, UNC has lost by 11 against Butler, which led by 28 points. The Heels lost by 24 at Indiana, by 18 at Texas and by 12 at N.C. State, which also led by 28 before UNC rallied.
It hasnt all been bad for UNC, which enters its game at No. 2 Duke on Wednesday night with a 6-4 ACC record. Still, itd be difficult to describe UNCs season as anything better than a disappointment.
Even after losing four players in the NBA draft, the Tar Heels began the season ranked No. 11. But the Heels fell out of the poll in December and havent been back. UNCs absence is hardly the only way to measure its struggles.
The Tar Heels have often appeared overmatched. They rank sixth nationally in possessions per game but have struggled to score at times. Defensively, there has been no shortage of lapses, like the ones Miami exploited Saturday.
Questions seem to outweigh explanations. The most general ones: Whats wrong? How did they arrive at this point and whats holding them back?
I dont know how to answer that question, James Michael McAdoo, the sophomore forward, said Saturday. We know what were capable of doing. Weve shown it at times. But like coach says weve just got to be ready to compete for 40 minutes. And when we do that, were a heck of a team.
When we dont, you see what happens with games like (Saturday).
Cant just outrun teams any more
All around McAdoo, UNCs players dressed and quietly packed their bags. But amid their silence was also a sense of frustration.
The defeats are troubling because they keep happening.
You got to think of it, Strickland said. We dont have Harrison (Barnes). We dont have Tyler Zeller, John Henson. We cant just rely on somebody just to we cant just outrun teams, play OK defense but outscore them. We cant do that. We have to bring the whole package, and were not doing that.
Strickland touched on the most obvious reason for UNCs deficiencies. Barnes, Zeller and Henson are in the NBA. So, too, is Kendall Marshall, the point guard who rewrote UNCs assists records.
It was only about a year ago around this time that Williams started to think Marshall might leave early.
It caught us off guard, but not at the end, Williams said last week. I mean, were sitting here in September, October, (and) said boy, he played great at the end of his freshman year. But there was no one that would say he was going to be the 13th pick (in the NBA draft) no one. And if somebody tells you they did, theyre a liar.
Williams told a story about a conversation he shared at some point last season with an NBA guy, who told Williams he wasnt sure Marshall would ever play in an NBA game. As last season progressed, though, Williams started to realize Marshalls rising stock.
As we went along, (I) said, guys, Harrisons probably going to go, and Zs going to graduate and my gosh, whos playing better than Kendall Marshall? Williams said. And so you think about it. And I thought he was going to be the Bob Cousy Award winner as the best point guard in the country. So things change.
Perhaps Marshalls greatest attribute was making teammates better. The Tar Heels offense transformed when he became the starting point guard midway through the 2010-11 season.
Williams admitted last week that he sometimes wonders what if, the same as fans do.
I think it, he said. Im human. But Im not going to waste any time on it. The one would have gotten me is, man, what if Sean May had come back, and he and Tyler (Hansbrough) and what if Marvin (Williams) had come back.
Pieces there, but puzzle not solved
But what if Marshall had come back? How much better would the Heels offense be with him running the break, setting up McAdoo in the interior and Reggie Bullock on the wing? How much could Marcus Paige, the Heels freshman point guard, have benefited from a season learning from and watching Marshall?
The what-ifs dont stop there. What if Larry Drew II hadnt abruptly left during the middle of the 2010-11 season? His departure cleared the way for Marshall, but Marshall might not have developed so quickly, and left so early, were it not for Drews absence.
And what about the Wear twins?
Travis and David Wear, the twin forwards in their junior seasons at UCLA, would now be UNC seniors had they not transferred in 2010. They are combining to average nearly 20 points per game this season.
Attrition has helped lead the Tar Heels to mediocrity at least relative to their standard but so, too, have recruiting misses. Since Harrison Barnes arrived in 2010, McAdoo is the only other top-10 prospect, according to ESPN, to sign during the past two recruiting cycles.
When UNC faced a talent exodus after the 2004-05 season, the Tar Heels welcomed Hansbrough. After failing to make the NCAA tournament in 2010, Barnes and Marshall along with Bullock arrived several months later. UNC has relied heavily on freshmen this season, but theyve been slower to develop than past classes.
For a variety of reasons, then, some current Tar Heels are experiencing something they rarely have: losing.
Ive never really been on a team that lost, Bullock, a junior, said Saturday. Like last year, (and) my first year, we were more talented than teams. We could score the ball a lot easier. And this year, its a lot more challenging to get (wins).
Its just not a one-man show, or a two-man show or a three-man show. Everybody has to compete together to get the (win) because we are a totally different team as last year and my freshman year. We definitely have the talent, but we have to do the things that those teams didnt to get Ws.
Williams has demanded more urgency from players. He has preached playing smarter. There are indications that, months into the season, hes still searching for the combination who will deliver what he wants.
Against Miami, for instance, Williams used 20 lineup combinations.
If youre getting your tail beat by 26, I dont think you can stay with the same lineup, he said. I think youve got to try to keep changing some things you cant just sit there and say, Oh well, lets just wait until the bus is ready to leave and get on the plane and go home. Were going to try to do something.
Williams has tried many things, but since the ACC play started, he hasnt changed his starting lineup. UNCs starting five of Desmond Hubert, McAdoo, Bullock, Strickland and Paige played less than five minutes together Saturday, but Williams said Monday that theyre the five best and that in practice theyd earned their starting positions.
Still, translating practice success to games has been problematic. After the loss Saturday, Strickland and his teammates said the same issues slow starts, offensive inefficiency, lack of communication on defense continue to preclude the Tar Heels from becoming the team they believe they can be.
Strickland thought things would be different by now.
I didnt expect these kinds of struggles at all, he said. Were not playing well, obviously. ...
Weve just got to put the pieces together in the right way.
With just eight regular-season games remaining, time is running out for UNC to solve a puzzle it helped created.