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North Carolina Men’s Basketball Is Off The Rails

The North Carolina Tar Heels walked onto their home court as 8.5-point favorites against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets for their first game of the 2020 calendar year. With a victory, daggum coaching legend Roy Williams could have passed his former mentor — and the namesake of North Carolina’s home court — on the all-time wins leaderboard.

Instead, the Tar Heels responded to the occasion by making history of a different sort: entering the locker room with the most lopsided halftime deficit since the Dean E. Smith Center opened in 1986.

“I apologize to all the North Carolina fans that care about our basketball program,” Williams said afterward, later disclosing that he was the “most disappointed, most upset I’ve ever been in my life coaching.”

Williams’s Southern drawl soundbites haven’t gotten any cheerier. In the last month, he has dubbed his team the “least gifted” he’s ever coached and intimated that the university’s athletic director should fire him, even though he’s under contract through 2028.

Even the most revered coaches and storied programs go through lean years, but Williams and North Carolina have largely avoided them. Only three coaches in Division I history have more wins than Williams, whose career win percentage exceeds 78. And despite having coached college basketball in some capacity for more than 40 years, Williams has never led a team to a losing record.

Chapel Hill’s basketball factory is one of the most widely recognized brands in college athletics. As recently as April, its valuation was north of $145 million. This is, of course, a campus where 51 first-round draft picks, including Michael Jeffrey Jordan, cut their teeth.

Carolina entered the season ranked in the top 10. It won basketball Twitter on opening night when star freshman Cole Anthony went for 34 points in a conference win while rocking some show-stopping prescription goggles. But then, seemingly overnight, a school that has played for two of the past four national championships and reached at least the second round of the NCAA Tournament in each of the last nine seasons fell apart, experiencing one of its worst seasons of the modern era. With a record of 10-12, UNC stands to post just the 11th losing campaign in the 110-season history of Tar Heel basketball and the third since the early 1960s.

Despite starting the season 5-0, North Carolina’s offense was held to under 80 points in each of its first 10 games for the first time since 1949. Over an 11-day span, the Tar Heels suffered the most lopsided home loss of Williams’s tenure and lost to Wofford. Last month, it dropped home tilts against Pittsburgh and Clemson, the latter of which had never beaten UNC in Chapel Hill.1 En route to a Sweet 16 appearance last season, UNC went 16-2 in conference play and earned a share of the regular-season ACC title. This season, the Tar Heels set a program record by dropping six consecutive games in conference play.

A head coach can typically point to a specific area or two holding his team back. There are perhaps too many for Williams to count.

“I don’t think you get to know the identity of your team until you start playing games and having some adversity,” Williams said during preseason media day. “I think it will be a running team and I think it will be a good defensive team.” A few months later, Williams has a team that’s his slowest in four years by adjusted tempo, and one that’s tracking to be the worst offense and defense he’s ever coached.

Traditionally, offense hasn’t been hard to come by for Williams, whose teams nearly always ransack the glass. That style hasn’t changed this season, as the team ranks No. 21 in offensive rebounding percentage, but while the team finished each of the past five seasons ranked in the top 11 of KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric,2 this season it ranks 128th.

Perhaps that’s because Williams is watching his team build a house of bricks nearly every night. Compared with other Williams-led offenses, this one is on pace to set new lows in 2-point field-goal percentage, 3-point field-goal percentage and effective field-goal percentage.

Some of the Tar Heels’ troubles can be explained by roster turnover. UNC lost four starters and its top five scorers from last season, three of whom were first-round selections in the NBA draft. Teams with more continuity typically perform better than those without. UNC ranks 325th in minutes continuity, according to KenPom.com, with the second-lowest share of returning minutes of any major-conference team.

Some of this season’s woes can also be explained by injury. Anthony was the top point-guard recruit in his class and is among the highest-ranked prospects ever brought to campus by Williams. So it should be noted that the Tar Heels’ best and most important player has appeared in only 11 games this season because of a knee injury that required surgery. Anthony isn’t the only injured player Williams has had to replace; he’s started 10 different players.

But the team hasn’t been terribly good offensively even when Anthony has been on the floor. The Tar Heels score more points per possession (0.96 compared to 0.93) and shoot a higher effective field-goal percentage (46.1 compared to 44.9) when Anthony leaves the court, according to Hoop-Lens.com. (It should be noted that they are far better defensively when Anthony plays.)

Whether fans pin it on player development or the team’s relatively poor performance on the recruiting trail in 2017 and 2018, things don’t look to get much better the rest of the season. North Carolina is favored in only three of its final nine games — with the first of two matchups with No. 7 Duke coming this Saturday — and Bart Torvik gives the Tar Heels just a 0.4 percent shot of reaching the NCAA Tournament, something UNC has accomplished in 15 of the 16 seasons Williams has been at the helm.

While watching Carolina basketball this season has been a miserable exercise, fans of the nation’s oldest public university can find optimism in the future. UNC is about to bring in its first top-five recruiting class since 2012, which includes three top-25 prospects and four players invited to the McDonald’s All-American Game.

Recruiting is “like farming,” Williams said after last year’s class was announced. “You work all year, and you have no idea what it’s going to be like until the crops come in. You just work all year and see what happens.”

But nobody anticipated famine in Chapel Hill, or that one of college basketball’s blue bloods, the program with the most all-time Final Four appearances, would look so ordinary in a season that’s arguably more open than most in recent memory. In Chapel Hill, they hang banners. But this season, it sure feels like the Tar Heels’ ceiling is well short of the roof.

Footnotes

  1. Home losses have been a common theme. The Dean E. Smith Center, where opponents traditionally come to fall, has already experienced more losses than the past two seasons combined, three of which came in conference play against teams with average or losing records.

  2. Which uses an additive model to estimate how many points a team would score per 100 possessions against an average Division 1 defense.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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