UNC Basketball: Tar Heels season on brink after crushing home loss vs. Duke

UNC Basketball lost a critical showdown with the hated Blue Devils in the ACC regular-season finale, and will now need to impress in the ACC Tournament.

OK Tar Heel fans, I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that for all intents and purposes, the Heels are in the NCAA Tournament. The bad news is that it starts on Wednesday in Greensboro. With Saturday’s loss to Duke, UNC Basketball very likely needs to win 10 straight games to hang another championship banner in the Smith Center.

Talk of championships at this moment is, of course, foolish. It wasn’t at the beginning of the year when UNC entered the season ranked #1. But as Chris Berman said, “That’s why they play the games.” Returning the core of a national runner-up usually portends success, but for a variety of reasons, this year’s edition of the Tar Heels took last year’s end result, “Almost”, and made it a way of life.

All season long, the Heels have found themselves in close games, and all season long, they’ve found ways to come up just short. Such was the case against Duke, again, and if they can’t reel off at least three, and possibly four, straight wins in Greensboro next week, they’ll become the first team in the modern era with the ignominious distinction of turning a preseason #1 ranking into a seat from the couch for the Big Dance.

Saturday’s game against Duke was a clear distillation of what has ailed the team all year. With the exception of the past two games, Carolina. Can’t. Freaking. Shoot. It’s maddening to have so many open shots and see so few of them converted, but such was the case once again. Duke defended well on the whole, but the Tar Heels still missed open look after open look, ending the game shooting 30.4% from the floor and 21.7% from three.

The shame of it is that other than the shooting, Carolina actually played a really solid game. With few exceptions, they defended extremely well, forcing Duke to make contested shots late in the shot clock. They battled the Blue Devils to a draw on the boards after giving up too many second-chance opportunities in the first half, and they lost the turnover battle by just one, 9-8. Carolina also outscored Duke on the fast break 9-4, a sea change from the first meeting when Duke outran the Heels 20-2.

Armando Bacot bounced back in a big way on his Senior Night, running the floor like the courtside-sitting Tyler Hansbrough. He attacked Duke’s freshman defensive wunderkind, Dereck Lively II, relegating him to the Blue Devil bench for much of the contest with foul trouble. Bacot finished with 17 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocks, hitting 9-10 from the free throw line, while Lively played only 17 minutes while posting a line of two points, six rebounds, and three blocks.

What went wrong?

As we outlined in our game preview, Bacot flipping the script from his first battle with Lively was of paramount importance to a Tar Heel victory. Equally vital though, was to continue the hot shooting of the past two games, and in that regard, UNC fell spectacularly short. There were so many chances to break this game open in the second half, especially after the Heels turned a seven-point deficit into a four-point advantage with 8:34 left. As has been the case so often this season though, UNC could never extend the lead, and they missed their final seven field goal attempts as Duke put it away.

If Carolina could have simply shot the ball slightly below average, they’d have won easily. Give Duke and Jon Scheyer credit for their defensive gameplan, though. They watched Leaky Black put up 18 points against Florida State, and dared him to do it again. Unfortunately for Leaky, he wasn’t able to replicate that performance in his final game in the Smith Center, leading the team with 16 attempts from the field, but making only three of them. Now UNC’s all-time leader in games played, Leaky has meant so much to this program, and it hurts to see his time in the Dean Dome end in disappointment.

Duke’s only consistent offensive option was freshman Kyle Filipowski, who dazzled with impressive footwork in the post on his way to 22 points and 13 rebounds. Even Leaky, for all his defensive acumen, had a hard time keeping the seven-foot rookie out of the paint. Jeremy Roach, who was Duke’s best offensive player when the teams met in Cameron Indoor last month, was mostly invisible after hitting two early threes. That is, until he drove through the entire Carolina team for a layup that extended Duke’s lead to three with under a minute to go.

As much as the focus deserves to be on Carolina for its continued underachievement this year, nearly as big a story is how Duke has exorcised the 500-pound gorilla demon of last year. With a rookie coach and a mostly-new roster that lost top pick Paolo Banchero and fellow first-rounders Mark Williams and A.J. Griffin to the NBA, Duke has gotten better as the year has progressed, entering the ACC Tournament on a six-game winning streak.

Free of the pressure and expectations that came with trying to send Mike Krzyzewski into the sunset on a high note, this year’s team is looking like a tough out. It physically pains me to say this, but Jon Scheyer has done a superb job in replacing his legendary predecessor.

I really thought that when Carolina beat Duke in the Final Four, the rivalry would never be the same. How wrong I was. Losing to Duke twice this year has been as much a kick in the shins as it ever was, and though I respect myself too much to have any Blue Devil fans in my life, I don’t imagine lording last year’s results over them would make me feel any better than the desultory mood I’m in now.

Much criticism has been directed Hubert Davis’ way, and sure, some of it has to be warranted. His lack of trust in his bench has been a real chicken-and-egg scenario. Personally, I believe that if he gave those guys more minutes earlier in the year, they’d be more prepared to contribute now. Or it could be that they wouldn’t have been ready either way, as we saw when the never-before-seen lineup of Leaky Black, Caleb Love, Dontrez Styles, Jalen Washington, and Seth Trimble got summarily destroyed for about one minute before Hubert pulled the plug and brought the starters back in late in the first half.

In a lot of ways, though, it’s tough to kill Hubert for this team’s shortcomings. The gameplan against Duke was sound, the team just didn’t execute. The way he got Armando on the move caught Duke off guard and led to the neutralization of Lively. The Heels’ team defense was stout, limiting Duke to 37.9% shooting. Get the Elias Sports Bureau on the line, because I have to think when Carolina holds a team to a number like that, they win nearly every time. But this team just can’t shoot, and I don’t know how you put that on Hubert. I have no doubt the team spends hours working on their shots. It’s a shame that Hubert, one of the sweetest shooters in Tar Heel history, can’t suit up and show them how it’s done.

The time for excuses has long been gone for this Carolina team, and now the term “must-win” is a cold, hard reality. The Heels will be the 7-seed in the ACC Tournament, and they’re now one game away from a bitter end to a season that once had such promise. Their first true back-to-the-wall game will take place Wednesday night when they take on the winner of Boston College and Louisville.

We’ve had months of evidence that this Carolina squad may look like the team that thrilled us last March, but just like the tethered in Jordan Peele’s Us (a different sort of horror movie than what the last four months have been), there’s something just a little bit off about them. Maybe the Caleb Love we saw last year is wearing a red jumpsuit and eating rabbits under the boardwalk somewhere. A stretch, I know, but I’ve run out of rational ways to explain one disappointment after another.

They say the definition of insanity is trying the same thing and expecting different results. Call me crazy, but until the clock hits midnight on this season, I’m going to keep believing that Carolina can find a way. Their likely path through the ACC Tournament will include Virginia, NC State or Clemson, and whichever of the Duke/Miami/Pitt trio (who combined to hand the Heels five losses) emerges from the top half of the bracket. A loss at any point likely ends their season.

Can Carolina regain the shooting form they so fleetingly displayed against Virginia and Florida State? They’ll have to, or at least find some close approximation of it, if they want to extend their basketball lives in Greensboro. Maybe we’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but join me in sticking with this team until the end. After what they did last year, I’m ready to go down with the ship one last time.