UNC (18-10), the "sexy" pick to reach the Final Four as one sportswriter put it during Roy Williams' press conference on Tuesday, can still salvage a season in which its win total fell considerably short of preseason expectations.
"I've never been addressed as the sexy pick at anything," joked Williams.
But there is nothing funny about the Tar Heels' roller coaster ride through the year, that included a fifth place conference finish, after being second in the preseason.
For a team that boasted three different players leading the ACC in scoring, rebounding and assists – something never before accomplished – Carolina has put together an enigmatic season of underachievement. Even more frustrating, in all but two of its losses, UNC has been within range of winning in the closing minutes of regulation. But blown leads and defensive lapses have befuddled players and fans, as well as its veteran head coach.
"We are awfully close to having a magical year," Williams said. "It is just the inconsistent play that has hurt us."
But that will likely all be forgotten if the Tar Heels can get on a run over the next few weeks. They get that opportunity to turn things around beginning around 9:50 p.m. EST on Thursday at the Pepsi Center against the Falcons (22-6), who conquered the Mountain West regular-season, but have not participated in the Big Dance since John F. Kennedy was president.
And while Carolina has a basketball tradition of longevity equaled by few college basketball programs, not one of its current players has ever stepped foot on the court during the NCAA Tournament.
"We finally got back in, but we're not satisfied," UNC center Sean May said. "This team is hungry right now."
"Hungry," that is word the Tar Heels have most used to describe their mindset entering the tournament. However, just to look at the players, one would have to wonder just how passionate they really are.
With the team at his house Sunday for dessert and to watch the selection show, Williams was surprised to see just how uninspired his team seemed after securing the Tar Heels' first return to the tournament in three years. Expecting his players to jump for joy as his previous 15 Kansas teams had done upon hearing their names called, Williams referred to his current squad's response as nonchalant, even saying – half-jokingly – that a couple of players had actually fallen asleep.
Whether that demonstrates disinterest or confidence remains to be seen.
"This is a cocky bunch of guys," Williams said.
Perhaps one of the reasons the Tar Heels have been so inconsistent has been the reduced offensive output of starters' Jawad Williams and Melvin Scott. In UNC's 83-82 first-round loss to Georgia Tech last Friday, May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants accounted for all but 10 of the team's points. No other Tar Heel scored more than six points, while the Yellow Jackets put five players in double figures.
Williams, who scored in double figures in his first eight games and in 13 of his first 17, has only scored 10 or more points in four of the last 11. Scott, who along with McCants represents the team's best three-point shooting threat, is slumping miserably – averaging just 4.4 points in his last five contests.
Scott, just 5-for-25 from beyond the arc during that span, is in danger of losing his starting position to defensive specialist Jackie Manuel, according to Roy Williams.
UNC went 7-7 versus the field of 64 this season, defeating Connecticut, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Maryland, Illinois and N.C. State twice, while falling twice to Tech, Duke and once to Kentucky, Wake and Maryland.
Carolina and Duke are in the same regional for the first time since 1979, when both fell in the East Regional second round at Raleigh on "Black Sunday."
IC has landed in Denver and will be beaming back exclusive stories and photos throughout the weekend.