UNC looks for answers during epic slump

Four straight losses have Hubert Davis questioning his team’s heart

UNC forward Pete Nance reacts after the Tar Heels’ four-overtime loss to Alabama on Nov. 27. It was the second of four straight losses suffered by UNC, which has gone from preseason No. 1 to out of The Associated Press men’s basketball poll. (Craig Mitchelldyer / AP Photo)

On April 2 of this year, UNC prepared to play Duke in a titanic rivalry matchup in the Final Four. As tipoff neared, Tar Heel fans across the globe whispered to themselves, “God, if you just let us win this one game …”

God did his part: The Tar Heels knocked off the Blue Devils and went on to the National Championship Game, securing the ultimate in bragging rights over their hated rival and sending Coach K off into retirement.

Whatever promises were made in those anxious pregame moments are apparently now coming due. The UNC football team has lost three straight games, torpedoing what had been a promising season. The women’s soccer team was stunned, blowing a two-goal lead to lose in the national title game. And the basketball team, which squandered a lead of its own against Kansas with the national title on the line, has now fallen on hard times.

On Nov. 15, following a third straight lackluster win over a nonconference opponent, coach Hubert Davis ripped his team. After calling them soft in practice leading up to the game, he doubled down, questioning the team’s toughness, effort and commitment to defense. He accused the team of ignoring scouting reports and directions from the coaching staff and implied that some players were preoccupied with “thinking about the draft” and “thinking about their NIL deals” and didn’t have the hunger and thirst to succeed.

The Tar Heels have gone 2-4 since that postgame dressing down, and the problems Davis outlined have seemed to get worse, not better.

Big man Armando Bacot, the preseason ACC Player of the Year, has struggled early in the season. His scoring, rebounding, assists and blocks averages are all down, while his turnovers and fouls are up. His shooting percentage is down and he’s taking fewer shots.

Bacot appeared to be battling ankle problems in Thanksgiving weekend losses to Iowa State and Alabama in the Portland Phil Knight tournament. He was kept on the bench in the final stretch of a quadruple-overtime loss to the Crimson Tide, then also appeared to be favoring his shoulder in a loss to Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. In a loss to Virginia Tech in the ACC opener over the weekend, Bacot dressed but didn’t play due to injury.

Davis didn’t appear to be on board with the decision to hold out Bacot.

“Well, it is his call,” the coach said. “I can’t make somebody play. So it is his call. We didn’t know until game time. I was going under the assumption that he would play, and when he came back and he said he didn’t feel like he could then we move forward. It is what it is, North Carolina always shows up. It doesn’t matter who’s playing or not.”

The Tar Heels were also without sophomore D’Marco Dunn, who is expected to miss several weeks with a hand injury. Dunn was part of a group of UNC reserves who, after not playing much early, were seeing their time on the floor increase as Davis’ frustration with the front-line players grew. Puff Johnson, who earned the start in Bacot’s absence but went scoreless against the Hokies, is also in that group.

“I really love what D’Marco, Seth (Trimble, freshman guard) and Puff are doing,” Davis said before Dunn suffered his injury. “Their minutes are just going to continue to rise. They’re playing not only well but consistently well in practice, and they’re also confirming that by their play in the game. And I’m very happy with the way that they’ve been playing, and they’re going to get more minutes.”

Caleb Love, who had a coming out party in last season’s NCAA Tournament run, has also found himself in Davis’ doghouse. Unlike Bacot, Love has improved his scoring — from 15.9 points per game to 19 — and shooting — from .371 to .412.

His shot selection and overall decision-making have been the problem, however. Love is taking nearly seven 3-pointers a game despite shooting just .262 from beyond the arc, nearly 10% lower than last year. He took an astounding 36 shots against Alabama, a total that dropped to 10 in his most recent game as Davis has harped on ball movement and player movement.

It’s worth remembering that last year at this time the Tar Heels were in a similar position, losing back-to-back games in a Thanksgiving tournament that had Davis questioning the team’s toughness and heart. UNC regrouped and strung together a few wins before getting drubbed by Kentucky in mid-December, 98-69. The Heels eventually found their footing and went on their epic late-season run, which included the wins over Duke in the regular season finale and the Final Four.

Now, the problems seem to have all returned, leading many to question which are the real Tar Heels — the ones that struggle in the early winter or the ones that seem invincible in March.

Until that question is answered, Tar Heels fans may be pondering ways to renegotiate their deal with the almighty.