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Tribune News Service
C.L. Brown

UNC mystified to go from No. 1 team to NCAA bubble watch

The moment Caleb Love announced his return to North Carolina last spring, which gave the Tar Heels four starters back from a team fresh off a NCAA national title game appearance, it led UNC fans to start making travel arrangements for the 2023 Final Four.

Some of those plans for this year’s NCAA Tournament finish in Houston have probably been canceled after watching the Heels drop from preseason No. 1 in the polls down to a bubble team — and on the cusp of not making the NCAA Tournament at all.

The question the players and those wanting to avoid postseason hotel cancellation fees is asking is, how did Carolina (17-11, 9-8 ACC) get here?

“Honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out myself,” guard R.J. Davis said.

Heels still seeking Quad 1 win

UNC coach Hubert Davis has tried to push the right motivational buttons to snap the team out of it.

Back in December, there was the “covenant” the team wrote out regarding how they wanted to play. Every player signed it. They’ve also had players-only meetings to try and get in sync.

Just this month, Davis used weighted jackets to simulate how they’ve been carrying an unnecessary albatross on their collective shoulders due to those lofty preseason expectations.

“I have felt through the course of this season our guys playing with added weight, I really do,” Hubert Davis said. “I think the added weight of being preseason No. 1. I think the added weight of the expectations. I think the added weight of this team looking like last year’s team. The added weight of, ‘Oh, you guys lost four in a row.’ The added weight of, ‘You guys are out of the top 25.’ The added weight of the NCAA Tournament and just being free enough just to play.”

ESPN pundit Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm both have the Heels among the “first four out” in their tournament projections. Carolina hasn’t helped its cause, having gone this far without a Quad 1 win. (When they beat Ohio State in December, it was a Quad 1 win, but did not hold up as the Buckeyes deteriorated into the bottom of the Big Ten.) .

UNC is 0-9 in that coveted metric of the NCAA’s NET rankings, but that could change soon. Saturday’s game with Virginia and the regular-season finale against Duke both offer chances for Quad 1 wins.

And, because the metric is always changing, wins over Michigan and N.C. State still could reach the Quad 1 category. The Wolverines are currently No. 53 in NET and if they move up to No. 50 that win would qualify. The Wolfpack is currently No. 36 and would become a Quad 1 win if the Pack can reach No. 30.

It wasn’t really until Carolina lost at N.C. State on Sunday that the reality the Heels could miss the NCAA tournament really shook them up.

“We obviously didn’t envision this would be how the season went,” Love said. “But we can change it. We’re just trying to do everything we can to finish the season strong as far as getting these last three wins before the ACC tournament and looking forward to the NCAA tournament.”

This is comparable to how Carolina ended last year’s regular season, pondering its tournament status. But it wasn’t supposed to be that way this year.

Armando Bacot, who was the ACC’s preseason Player of the Year, has largely lived up to expectations. He again leads the team in scoring and rebounding while averaging 17.3 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. Those numbers rank fourth and first, respectively, in the ACC.

Bacot admitted that making the 2022 title game and falling about 90 seconds short of winning the championship in a 72-69 loss to Kansas was both a gift and a curse. The Heels had the confidence that they could get back, but they spent too much time early on in this season relying on last year’s accomplishments.

“We definitely had a little hangover from last year,” Bacot said. “There were times (this season) where I just knew we weren’t as disciplined and we just weren’t doing the right things.”

Brady Manek’s shooting last season sometimes helped cover up those lapses. The Oklahoma transfer was the prototype stretch-4 that Hubert Davis envisioned working in his system. Manek helped keep floor spacing honest by opposing defenses that had to account for his presence, and it kept the post largely clear for Bacot to work.

That hasn’t happened this season.

Carolina is shooting 29.9% from 3-point range, which would set an all-time low in program history if it stays that way. The spacing that helped UNC rank 18th nationally in offensive efficiency, according to analytics guru Ken Pomeroy, has been replaced by and large by lane closures. UNC currently ranks 54th in adjusted offense.

“It’s just a formula teams are using,” Bacot said. “Every team we’ve been playing now are playing me the exact same way: I feel like they’re sitting in a box and daring us to make shots.”

Often times, especially in close games, Carolina has not made those shots. The Heels are next to last in the ACC in effective field goal percentage, averaging just 47.3% per game according to Ken Pomeroy.

Even in Wednesday’s win at Notre Dame, they shot a season-low 33% from the floor.

“When you don’t make any shots, it looks bad,” said Pete Nance, a graduate transfer from Northwestern. “That happens sometimes, but it was just great to be able to kind of gut out a ugly game like that one.”

Nance has been the target of some fans’ ire, simply because he’s not Manek. Nance is averaging 9.7 points and 6.1 rebounds, but he’s shooting 28% from 3-point range after going 45% last season at Northwestern.

Every game matters

The season’s struggles could be summed up by Carolina’s failures to close out games. UNC is 25th nationally in experience, according to Pomeroy’s metrics, but that experience hasn’t translated into finishing strong in tight games.

UNC blew leads late in such losses as Iowa State, Alabama and twice to Pitt — and it couldn’t make enough plays when it was tied late in losses at Duke and N.C. State.

That’s why Wednesday’s 63-59 win at Notre Dame was a notable exception. The Fighting Irish are struggling and was a team the Heels beat handily 81-64 in Chapel Hill last month. But Carolina had to overcome a 19-point first half and a game in which it shot 8% from 3-point range — the third-lowest performance in program history — to eke out a win.

“We’ve been in this position a number of times in the last two weeks,” Hubert Davis said. “We’ve been in the same position at Pitt, same position at Duke, same position not against Wake Forest but against Miami and also against N.C. State. And this time we were able to get the stops and make the baskets that we needed to down the stretch to win.”

Now, the Heels don’t have much of a margin of error down the stretch of their schedule. Each of their three remaining regular-season games has the feel of an elimination game that would send them to Greensboro needing to win the ACC tournament in order to make the NCAAs.

“We can’t hang our heads. We still have a chance,” Love said. “Coach Davis, his emphasis was, ‘Do you believe?’ and every single one of us, all 18 guys said, ‘We do believe.’ So that’s how we got to come out and play every time.”

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