Back in early 1997, Roy Williams trekked to Chapel Hill, N.C., either to see his son play in the North Carolina junior varsity game or to see his daughter in a dance performance. The years have blurred those particulars, but not the memory of what one of his golfing pals asserted about then-coach Dean Smith, whose team was off to an 0-3 start in ACC play and had rival N.C. State next on the docket.
"The game has passed him by," Williams’ friend said.
"That is the dumbest damn statement I have ever heard in my life," Williams replied. "And let’s keep it between us, so no one knows how dumb you sounded."
They didn’t sit together to watch that game against the Wolfpack, but North Carolina barely emerged with a cauterizing 59-56 win. Out of a predictably apocalyptic atmosphere that would accompany any three-game losing streak for this program, the Tar Heels began a run to the Final Four.
Williams recalled all of this Friday. Because while no one might suggest this North Carolina team is on the verge of an invigorating run after losing its first two ACC games to fall to 10-5 overall, no one is really sure what to suggest at all about a mercurial outfit apparently capable of reaching transcendent highs and then, the next day, spelunking in the lowest of lows.
“You go home and you’re mad,” Williams said at a news conference, before his team traveled to face No. 2 Syracuse on Saturday. “I don’t have a dog or a cat, and I don’t kick one for sure. You go home, put it behind you and come back next day and do the best you can in practice. That’s the way I’ve been my entire life. I’ve played terribly on the front nine before and said, ‘By God I can birdie every hole the rest of the way.’”
After a half a beat, Williams added, “Now, that’s never happened.”
It was a moment of self-deprecation, of course, and not surrender. And who can say with any assurance that the Tar Heels are worthy of confidence or contempt. They have beaten Louisville, Kentucky and Michigan State. They have lost to Belmont, UAB and now Wake Forest and Miami back-to-back. They seem just as capable of ably navigating the thicket of Syracuse’s matchup zone as they do of spontaneously vaporizing on the Carrier Dome floor.
Williams deemed the home loss to Miami on Wednesday a particular low point in a seven- or eight-month stretch teeming with them. The upshot is that his club has experience clambering back up from the depths.
“We’re fine,” Tar Heels forward J.P. Tokoto said. “You’re going to lose games. It’s unfortunate we’re starting out 0-2, but it’s not the end of the season. It’s beginning of ACC play. We have great ACC teams – like Miami, like Wake Forest. They’re not pushovers. They came out and played harder than us. Fortunate enough for us, that’s an easy fix.”
Not as easy is the production, especially not in the context of dealing with the Orange and that zone on Saturday. North Carolina’s offense failed it in the two ACC games thus far, the Tar Heels shooting a combined 35 percent overall in those games, featuring an unsightly 7-of-36 from three-point range. The 28 combined turnovers over two games isn’t galling, exactly, except that Williams felt they were the kind of miscues that led to too many easy buckets.
Leading scorer Marcus Paige struggled this week, shooting 5-of-27 over the last two losses, but it is more about finding consistent, complementary outlets to ease the pressure rather than fixing what’s wrong with the sophomore guard. As Williams put it, the team’s secondary scoring option currently is: “Anybody that makes it.”
“We had a talk again after the game the other night,” Williams said of Paige. “He needs some help. He needs somebody else to do some things from the perimeter. But that’s the way it’s been forever.”
Syracuse’s zone enraging teams is the way it has been forever, too. The Orange rank 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency this year, allowing 94 points per 100 possessions. For a team already scuffling offensively, the matchup seems more or less lethal. But then there are those nagging reference points of Louisville, Kentucky and Michigan State, and the concession Friday that the Tar Heels certainly were more ready for those contests than maybe some others in which they fell short.
“Yeah, it’s in the back of our minds that we beat ranked teams, but at the same time, it’s more of we have to come to play,” Tokoto said.
When Williams was asked if there was a comfort in his team’s track record against ranked foes, he coincidentally coughed vigorously. But it would be no shock to believe he found that idea hard to swallow.
“I can’t speak for 18-, 19- or 20-year-olds, but it’s certainly not a comfort level for 63-year-old. Who knows what goes on in their mind. Michigan State, Louisville, Kentucky -- I thought when we played them, they were really good teams and we caught them on a night when they didn’t play as well and we played very well. I would hope that happens again, yeah.”
It won’t be a surprise either way. Williams said his team was “feeling a lot of stress” with the way the season has progressed, that when a North Carolina team loses a couple games “people think you should jump off the top of a building.” The head coach, too, at least appears to be wearing his angst on his sleeve, acknowledging Miami as a low point but joking that he didn’t go home and make a list to determine just where it fell among all-time clunkers.
We’re also now at the point where the rigors of this season brought about questions to Williams about how much longer he wants to do this. “I want to coach a long time,” Williams said Friday. “But this has been a frustrating beyond belief kind of thing. When I lay there at night, I don’t think, ‘Why I don’t I run to first tee?’ I’m thinking about how I can get the next basket to go in, instead of miss.” He doesn’t know which one will come next. No one does with this team. For those involved and invested, that is the thrill and the damnable misery of it all.