WINSTON-SALEM--It's unclear exactly how many of the involved parties realized it, but Carolina's 2013-14 basketball team had a turning point on Sunday night at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The question now is which way they turn.
As you are well aware, Wake Forest pulled off a 73-67 win in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener for both teams. It was an odd game. The Tar Heels never got into an offensive rhythm and shot just 38.7 percent for the game. The tone was set in the first half, when they shot just 36.3 percent on two-pointers (compare that to a season average of 50.0 percent).
It didn't just seem like Carolina couldn't convert easy baskets. That was actually what was happening. In today's college game, two-pointers are most often shots in the paint and around the rim. There weren't many 17-footers included in that 36.3 percent. But on what should be the most high percentage shots in the game, the Tar Heels could make only one out of every three tries.
"We weren't tough enough, physical enough, strong enough or explosive enough to finish the plays," Roy Williams said after the game.
And that's what prompted a long--the longest of the season, and it's not particularly close--postgame meeting between Williams and his team. Usually, the head coach is in and out of the postgame locker room fairly quickly. There's not much to say at that point. Especially after a loss, Williams is of the opinion that there's no reason to hammer his team, or to potentially say something that he might regret later.
The hard lessons usually come later, at practice, with the benefit of film review and an empty Smith Center.
This time, though, Williams wanted to make his point immediately. He didn't emerge from the locker room until 10:22 p.m., after Wake's Jeff Bzdelik had already talked to the Deacons and completed his postgame media obligations. That's not just a long meeting by this year's standards; that's a long meeting by the eleven-year pattern established by Williams during his time as head coach at UNC.
So, what did the head coach say? People sometimes tend to picture long postgame talks as a detailed analysis of the game that just happened, of raised voices pointing out miscues or bad plays.
That wasn't the case. This was less a talk about what happened specifically against Wake Forest and more about what might have led to that loss, and what could prevent something similar from happening in the future.
Marcus Paige (predictably) did the best job of synthesizing the talk and also explaining how it was relevant to this year's team and Sunday's game.
"He made the point that at some point you have to make a decision to outwork other teams," Paige said. "This team isn't talented enough to just show up and beat somebody because we're more gifted than them. Especially in our league, as much as teams scout. We can't just show up and win because we have Carolina on our jersey.
"He mentioned games back in the day, like the 2009 team that lost here and won the championship, and he mentioned when Wake went 30-something for 30-something from the free throw line."
A brief interjection with two quick points:
1. Marcus, thanks for making every last one of us feel ancient by referring to 2009 as "back in the day." That day was, like, yesterday.
2. The second game referenced was 2005, when the Deacs went 32-for-32 from the free throw line while Carolina went 21-for-26. While that was a frustrating afternoon in Winston, it probably falls short of Sunday, when Wake hit 19-of-33 from the line while the Tar Heels managed just 7-for-11.
And, of course, those two teams--the '05 and '09 squads both won national titles--are different than this one. You're no doubt thinking to yourself how much more talented they were than this one, and it's true that they likely were. But it's also true that at the moment those teams left Lawrence Joel, there were plenty of people finding plenty of faults with them. It's just that the shine off the championship trophy makes us forget that right now.
Back to Marcus.
"Both those teams made the decision they were going to outwork and start playing harder than other teams regardless of how talented they were," Paige said. "It starts with the little things. It's not just making a basket. It's doing things that define toughness. Change a guy's path on a ball screen. Get in a stance in late clock situations, don't get driven to the basket, come to practice ready to practice, lift, take care of your body. All of those little things are what separate teams, especially in leagues as good as ours."
Paige is not just right. He's stunningly right. Half the things Paige mentioned as "defining toughness" don't even happen on the court. That's an advanced understanding of what often makes the difference at this level, when virtually everyone involved has good players who are athletically gifted.
That silly stuff that didn't matter in high school--Do you push yourself off the court? Are you willing to make every effort on every possession even when things aren't going your way?--matters now. Not every team gets that. In fact, many teams don't get that, and that's how we're usually able to identify the extraordinary ones, like 2005 and 2009 (and, for that matter, 2006).
As Williams made clear both to his team and to the media last week, the intensity level changes in conference play. Wake Forest played with the type of passion he had warned his Tar Heels would be necessary.
Carolina, on this night, sometimes did not. After the game, Williams again explained some of the nuances necessary to a more rewarding effort. What the team chooses to do with that information marks one of this year's most important signposts.
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.