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February 25, 2010The old adage 'Murphy's Law' states that 'Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.'
There's plenty of debate as to where the term 'Murphy's Law' was originated, but what isn't up for debate is that Murphy's Law has settled into North Carolina's men's basketball program in a big way this winter---plaguing the defending national champions and turning a season filled with optimism early on into a nightmare that most fans are eager to see come to an end.
It's a fall from grace that could potentially reach historical proportions if things continue to go horribly wrong over the next two weeks.
While there have been plenty of defending champs that didn't return to the Big Dance---most notably two-time defending champ Florida a couple of years ago---no defending NCAA titleist in recent memory has fallen apart in similar fashion to this squad and had a losing record.
At 14-14 coming off last night's loss to Florida State, and with upcoming road games at Wake Forest and Duke, along with a home game against Miami next week and at least one ACC Tournament contest, Carolina is going to have to pull out a couple of wins out over the next few weeks in order to avoid the dubious distinction of being a defending champion with a losing record.
In so many ways it could have been expected---after all, the Tar Heels did lose the great Tyler Hansbrough, along with Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington and Danny Green and others from last year's team.
But there was the glimmer of hope that was the 2005-2006 season, when a bunch of freshmen came together with some savvy veterans to create magic in Chapel Hill when nobody expected it.
That team, unfortunately, raised the bar for this team and created similar expectations that would have been tough for this particular UNC squad to accomplish even at full strength.
"Everyone wants to compare this to '06, and in '06 we played 31 games and our top nine guys missed three games. This year we're in the opposite direction," said UNC head coach Roy Williams.
In terms of things going wrong for the Tar Heels, it of course starts with the injuries, as the Tar Heels have lost Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller, and both David Wear and Travis Wear for games in the past few weeks alone.
That doesn't even include Marcus Ginyard, Dexter Strickland, and Leslie McDonald, who all missed action earlier this season.
Zeller was lost for a couple of months with a foot injury, while Davis and David Wear are likely both lost for the rest of the season with a broken wrist and hip injury, respectively.
Only Deon Thompson and Larry Drew II have played in every game for the Tar Heels so far.
Coach Williams has continuously said that injuries are an 'excuse' for his team's poor performance---and he's absolutely right---but it doesn't take away from the fact that this team has never really played at its full potential at any point this year.
That, of course, doesn't make opposing teams take it easy on the defending national champions, and while many of the expected regulars haven't been available to Coach Williams lately, he's tried to make do with the best lineups he can find.
What Williams doesn't have at this point in time is a quality defensive group---even with Zeller and potentially Travis Wear returning for the final stretch of the season.
Defensively, the Tar Heels have simply been atrocious this year---allowing an ACC-worst 72.9 points per game.
UNC is 10th in the ACC in field goal percentage defense---allowing its opponents to shoot 41.9 percent against them---and they're 11th in three-point percentage defense, as Carolina's foes are making a healthy 34.9 percent of its shot attempts from beyond the arc.
That was painfully evident Wednesday night, as lightly-regarded FSU shooters Deividas Dulkys and Derwin Kitchen got nice looks from outside and drained them.
Simply stated, opponents are scoring in droves against the Tar Heels, and for those players who do return to the UNC rotation in 2010-2011, defense must become a primary focus if the team is to get better next season and return to national prominence.
Carolina is also dead-last in the ACC in turnover margin, as they've given up 439 turnovers in 28 games (15.67 per game) against 400 assists (14.28 per game)---a margin of -1.39 per outing in favor of turnovers.
Careless passes and over-aggressive dribbling into defenders by the UNC guards, along with solid defense by opposing teams, has turned the Tar Heels into a highly-frustrating mess on the offensive end of the floor.
Getting to that point, UNC doesn't have a single player now in the top 10 in the ACC in scoring since Davis has gone down.
While senior Deon Thompson ranks 11th with an average of 14.1 points per game, it's been painfully evident without Davis in the lineup that the Tar Heels do not have a go-to scorer that can take over a game and will UNC to victory.
While Will Graves has stepped up at times trying to fill that role---including his team-high 21 points last night against the Seminoles---the consistency hasn't been there with him or anybody else, and as a result UNC has struggled mightily in most of its recent contests to put the ball in the basket.
The bottom line is that despite all the similarities between North Carolina's 2006 squad and the 2010 squad, that was a completely different team that played at UNC four years ago, and these are completely different players today with exception of one---Ginyard.
Ginyard has been careless with the basketball at several points this season and has struggled to score, and while he played hard Wednesday night with 10 rebounds, he hasn't been the bridge that many were hoping he would be---as David Noel had been with Ginyard's own freshman class.
That certainly doesn't mean that this season is Ginyard's fault.
To the contrary, it would probably be far worse if Ginyard wasn't in the lineup, but clearly it hasn't been the kind of senior year he was hoping for by any means.
Despite suffering heartbreaking single-game losses with great teams that were good enough to be national champions in past NCAA Tournaments---including 1997 and 2003 at Kansas and 2008 at UNC---this season is clearly the toughest Williams has ever had to endure as a basketball coach.
At no point in his collegiate career, as either an assistant or as a head coach, has he dealt with the type of complete adversity that he has faced this season.
After years and years of sitting at the top of the mountain, for the first time Williams has been forced to face some of the same humility and stark reality of defeat that he has been dishing out to those same ACC teams and coaches over the years.
Will it make him a better coach? That of course remains to be seen.
It should definitely make him a hungrier coach, and a coach that has something to prove---which in and of itself should give Tar Heel fans hope for the future.
There is absolutely no way that Williams will allow his legacy at UNC to be tainted with failure in the last decade of his coaching career after winning two national championships.
This means that the level of complacency that clearly has set into this program in recent months should have evaporated completely by the start of next season, given this winter's dreadful showing.
After a season like this, Williams and his staff should come back hungrier than ever to get back into the national discussion and to play their way back into the Final Four next season with a team infused with outstanding young talent such as Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock, and Kendall Marshall.
Truthfully, such a future run should prove quite satisfying to Williams and those players---especially those players who have been forced to deal with all the struggles of this season.
As it did for Melvin Scott, Jawad Williams, and Jackie Manuel, who went from 8-20 as freshmen in 2002 to NCAA champions as seniors in St. Louis in 2005, this whole situation has a chance to turn into a real 'feel good' story over time if Carolina's youngsters such as Strickland, McDonald, the Wear Twins, and John Henson stick with the system, continue buying into what Coach Williams is trying to teach them, and continue to develop their respective games.
For a UNC program used to the highest of highs in recent years, this year's humbling run has been every bit as mystifying as it's been tragic.
Nonetheless, it's a good lesson in overcoming adversity that should make the inevitable future successes from the Tar Heels on the hardwood all the sweeter.