Victories over then-No. 1 Michigan State and No. 3 Louisville. Losses to Belmont and UAB.
Those games, played in barely more than two weeks’ time, mark this season’s North Carolina team.
Aaron Brenner, the sportswriter who dropped Kentucky from No. 4 to completely off his top 25 ballot this week, said of the Tar Heels, “They’ve been even more of an enigma. Two fantastic wins. Two really puzzling losses.”
Which North Carolina team Kentucky faces Saturday in Chapel Hill is a mystery. Conqueror of two of college basketball’s presumed best teams? (Each game away from home.) Or loser to teams ranked 62nd (Belmont) and 84th (UAB) by noted number-cruncher Ken Pomeroy?
North Carolina Coach Roy Williams offered a three-pronged explanation for his team’s stomach-in-the-throat ups and downs.
“It’s a young team,” he said Thursday. “It’s college basketball. It’s parity.”
It’s a UNC team in flux that Kentucky faces. The Tar Heels’ perimeter lost three expected regulars. Reggie Bullock, arguably the team’s best player, surprised everyone by leaving for the NBA after his junior season. P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald dismayed everyone by becoming embroiled in embarrassing off-the-court controversies that led to ongoing suspensions.
As a result, point guard Marcus Paige moved to shooting guard and freshman Nate Britt became the primary ballhandler.
Former Tar Heel Eric Montross, who does commentary on radio broadcasts of UNC games, noted how Paige had to tutor Britt while also learning a new position.
“It put a lot of pressure on his shoulders,” Montross said.
It’s also believed that James Michael McAdoo, a 6-foot-9 junior, feels the weight of responsibility. He’s made only 40.4 percent of his shots. “That just adds to the fray,” Montross said.
Aside from Paige, North Carolina has had no reliable perimeter shooting. Paige has made 20 of 51 three-point shots (39.2 percent). Everyone else has made three of 26 (11.5 percent).
“We’re just finding what works,” Paige said of UNC’s 6-2 start. “We understand shooting threes is not a strength of ours. So we’re not jacking up 12 to 14 threes. We’re not trying to do things we’re not capable of.”
The Tar Heels’ 2.9 three-point baskets per game rank 345th (that’s last) among teams listed by NCAA statisticians.
UNC looks for offense inside. Sophomore Brice Johnson (13.6 points per game) and freshman Kennedy Meeks (8.5) reflect a team that fits the trite label of a work in progress.
Yet, Johnson (6-9), Meeks (6-9), Joel James (6-10) and Desmond Hubert (6-10) allow North Carolina to look Kentucky’s imposing front line eye-to-eye.
“The front-court matchup is going to be pretty exciting,” Paige said before adding, “if you’re a fan of post play.”
Free-throw shooting has hurt North Carolina. The Tar Heels rank 322nd in accuracy (61.8 percent).
In the 83-80 loss to Belmont, UNC made only 22 of 48. McAdoo made 11 of 19, which looked great compared to teammate J.P. Tokoto’s four of 16. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels made four of 11 free throws in the loss at UAB.
When asked what could be the fix, Williams said, “I’ve already gotten 2,700 suggestions.” He acknowledged that he walks a fine line between stressing the need for improvement while not turning free-throw shooting into a mental complex.
In addition to getting an inexperienced team to improve, Williams faces the additional burden presented by Hairston and McDonald.
Each will be conspicuously sitting on the bench in suits.
Hairston was suspended indefinitely after being stopped for traffic violations that also led to charges of marijuana possession and driving without a license.
The cars he drove in separate incidents had been rented by convicted felon Haydn “Fats” Thomas.
McDonald appeared in an advertisement for a designer mouth guard, which raised NCAA concerns about receiving extra benefits.
Neither is expected to play against Kentucky.
Those well-publicized problems, which followed reports of possible academic fraud in UNC athletics, mocked the notion of “The Carolina Way,” a longtime label that suggested North Carolina operated on a higher ethical plane.
“Hey, I’m not going to pull blinders on and say, ‘Hey, this is nothing,’” Montross said. “It’s very much something.”
The Carolina Way remains alive as a standard that the athletic department and fans embrace, Montross said.
“We shouldn’t be so short-sighted or shallow-minded to believe we’re not susceptible just like everybody else is,” he said. “I’m frustrated.”