LOUISVILLE, Ky. – No. 2 North Carolina failed in its effort to take a commanding three-game lead in the ACC standings on Monday night, thereby shrinking its margin of error entering a difficult back nine of the league schedule.
A win over No. 19 Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center would have allowed room for an inexplicable loss, the kind that’s both notorious and routine in the grind that is ACC play. Instead, the Tar Heels (19-3, 8-1 ACC) faltered in trying to win their first true road game against a ranked opponent since Dec. 2013, shooting a season-low 34.5 percent while the Cardinals shot 53.1 percent after halftime.
As a result, UNC makes the turn with a one-game lead over Louisville and a two-game lead in the loss column over five other ACC opponents.
The Tar Heels’ final nine regular season games include seven matchups with teams ranked in the RPI Top-50. Two of those opponents are currently ranked (Virginia, Miami) and three others are receiving votes in the AP Poll (Notre Dame, Duke, Pittsburgh).
Prior to Monday’s loss, UNC had built its 8-0 ACC record against teams with a combined 25-45 league record. Its final nine games come against teams with a combined 37-29. N.C. State (2-8) is the lone ACC opponent remaining with a losing record in league play.
“There’s no question we’ve got the top half of the schedule the second half of the season, and Louisville is 18-4, so their record was a heck of a lot better,” Roy Williams told reporters at the KFC Yum! Center. “Boston College struggled this weekend, but in this league, you know you’ve got to play everybody. It’s just unfortunate for us that they’re all at the end.”
What’s troubling for UNC is that it enters the difficult part of its schedule not playing its best ball. The Tar Heels, once considered the nation’s top offensive team, have shot below 38.5 percent in four of their last five games. All-American Marcus Paige is mired in a six-game shooting slump. The offensive woes have placed tremendous pressure on their defense, which managed just fine against the bottom half of the league standings but faltered against the Cardinals.
“The ACC is a grind,” Paige said. “We can’t be perfect. We didn’t play anywhere close to our potential today… It’s an 18-game season. Last time I checked, we’re still on top of the league, so we still have some opportunities to get better. We’re still where we want to be. Obviously, we slipped up today, but I can’t remember the last time a team just ran through the ACC undefeated and unscathed.”
That’s not the first time Paige has alluded to his team’s untapped potential, and he’s likely correct. A return to early January offensive efficiency levels paired with an opportunistic defensive approach – UNC is at its best on that end of the floor when forcing turnovers to spur transition – would stress not only the top teams in the ACC, but also the top teams in the country.
Check the box score in UNC’s win over No. 4 Maryland on Dec. 1, for example. The Tar Heels shot 53.2 percent from the floor and converted 22 Terrapin turnovers into 23 points.
There have been indications in practice that UNC is working towards its potential. Paige has been shooting better of late, while effort and intensity have been more consistent.
“We’ve just got to come out on game day and show it,” senior forward Brice Johnson said. “Some guys aren’t hitting shots some games, some games they are. On defense, some games we play great, some games we don’t. We have to come out and be ready to play every game. I wish we didn’t have to say this, but at the same time, we’ve just got to get better.”
Potential represents promise during preseason practice and early season tournaments. That Paige and his teammates are still talking about it in February is problematic. While there is still plenty of time for growth, the window is closing. March Madness is only a few weeks away, but before the Tar Heels get there, they have to first navigate a treacherous ACC slate filled with quality opponents and road games.
“We’d like to have things easy,” Williams said. “Everybody would, but in this league, there’s not that many things easy.”