AUSTIN, Texas-After Carolina had struggled through an 85-67 defeat at Texas on Wednesday night, three voices spoke loudest in the Tar Heel locker room.
The first, of course, belonged to Roy Williams. It doesn't happen like the movies in this situation. If the Carolina season was a film, the head coach would've come into the Erwin Center visitor's locker room, drop-kicked a chair, given a rousing speech, and everyone wearing blue would have immediately shot better, rebounded better and probably even smelled better.
But it doesn't happen that way here. The Tar Heels are 8-3 and have some problems that require practice.
"We got our butts kicked," Williams told his team, and that was a very adept summation.
Some of the Tar Heels have not been in this situation. This team has played three probable NCAA Tournament teams, and lost all three, with portions of each game an avert-your-eyes blowout. Understandably, they are a little wobbly.
"The confidence issue is what we're trying to figure out," said Marcus Paige, who had a team-high five assists.
You can see it on the court. Instead of instinctively moving to the right spot, they're not quite sure they should trap here (it's telling that Williams, a coach who has always strongly preferred not to trap on the road, believing it can create momentum for the home crowd and home team, used a trap relatively liberally against the Longhorns), not completely certain they should penetrate there. It's just a half-step, maybe less, but it might be the difference between pursuing a loose ball with reckless abandon as compared to getting there just after the other team is headed the opposite direction.
They need confidence, but they need something good to happen on the court to have confidence. But they need confidence before something good can happen on the court. Right this second, they are every 21-year-old filling out his or her first job application who is being told they need to get more experience to get the job, but they can't get a job to get the experience.
Enter the second voice. This one was wearing a navy Carolina sweatsuit and came with the swagger born of professional success. There are Tar Heels in the locker room who probably know Danny Green only as a San Antonio Spurs standout, as a player so valuable that head coach Gregg Popovich earns a $250,000 fine just for sending Green home to get an extra night's rest rather than playing him in a game against the Miami Heat.
But there is so much more to Green than that. His story includes the NBDL and a place even tougher--Chapel Hill when he wasn't sure he was going to be able to figure out all these burdens that a demanding coach was placing on him. He once turned it over three times in nine minutes against Clemson. He shot 0-of-5 against Maryland.
Green and the Spurs had the night off, and it's less than a two-hour drive from San Antonio to Austin. He sat in the fifth row behind the Carolina bench with fellow letterman Jesse Holley, and what he saw looked familiar. When he struggled, he watched and learned from Reyshawn Terry. Now, seven years later, he's in the position to dispense some wisdom. So when it was over, Green went from player to player in the locker room, preaching the same message: confidence.
"Whatever you do, stay confident," he told a group of three Tar Heels, who were giving him their complete attention. You probably see Danny Green and think of freshman year struggles, Jump Around (old memories die hard, and even now, when he is so much more than just a guy who dances, one Tar Heel fan hollered, "Show us a dance, Danny!" as Green sat down in the Carolina section), heat checks and, of course, Greg Paulus.
But the current Tar Heels look at Green and most of them don't know any of that. They see one thing: he's in the NBA. He's a valuable member of one of the best teams in professional basketball. So as Green told them, "Be a threat on the court, don't just settle. Be confident in yourself," they listened as if he was giving them explicit directions to Santa's workshop.
I promise: however much you think you love Danny Green--and we're talking about one of the most popular players of the Williams era--you would've loved him more if you could've seen him coaching up the Tar Heels. I don't know what NBA players normally do on their nights off. But Green was here, an hour's drive away from home, doing whatever he could to help the Tar Heels.
"DG is trying to pick us up," Paige said, "and it means a lot right now."
Across the locker room, Reggie Bullock was knotting his tie. He had nothing else to say, because he'd already spoken his mind. When the Tar Heels returned to the locker room after the loss, the Kinston native was frank with his teammates.
"We can't keep playing like this," he told them. "If we keep playing like this, teams are going to keep kicking our butts. We have to go out there and be able to turn the game around. We have to do exactly what Coach wants us to do."
You get the sense that Wednesday night gave Bullock a window into exactly how critical he is to this Tar Heel team. Bullock led the team in points and rebounds. When he and James Michael McAdoo were productive--the duo combined to score 19 of Carolina's 25 points in one stretch through the middle of the second half--the Tar Heels were formidable. When they weren't--neither scored in the game's final 7:48--things fell apart.
Bullock's value might be even greater than that, because when Williams talks about the need to "buy in"--Williams, Paige and Bullock all independently mentioned the phrase as a needed area of improvement--no one questions whether Bullock is already invested. "I thought Reggie was the one guy who I would say played so much harder than everybody else and used some intelligence with it," Williams said.
Bullock is clinically incapable of being selfish. But he is one of Carolina's best players. He had a relatively open look at a corner three-pointer with 2:30 left and the Tar Heels down nine, but swung the ball instead to Marcus Paige. The freshman indisputably had a more open look, which is exactly what Bullock was thinking. But at that time and at that score, the Tar Heels need their junior to be the player who takes that shot.
"I'm an unselfish player," Bullock said. "But there are times when I have to get a little more aggressive. That comes with time and experience and being a leader of this team."
His experience is exactly what caused him to speak up after the game. He knows the Tar Heels are in a perilous spot. They do not have a signature nonconference win. Their only wins right now, as Roy Williams said after the game, "we should've won because we were more gifted."
Conference play is still two weeks away, but you can tell Bullock wants changes now. He's been around and he knows how difficult those ACC wins will be to earn. He's not panicked, but he is realistic.
The Tar Heels are likely to find lots of people offering advice in the days to come. The challenge now is to identify the ones who offer some value (the most significant one is fairly obvious, because he's located in the big office in the Smith Center and he has lots of shiny rings), and then do the one thing that's needed most: listen.