The room was mostly silent, with only occasional murmuring, and it carried with it a distinct sense of déjà vu. You know this sound. It was the kind of room when even the people who aren't sure why they are being quiet tend to talk in a low tone, because that's what everyone else is doing.
One person was doing most of the talking in the Carolina players' lounge as the Tar Heel players met the media following Thursday's 68-59 home loss to Miami. Reggie Bullock was sitting at a table, trying to eat a slice of pizza, when the media walked in. A crowd gathered around him, asking him to explain what had just happened. This is his role now: he is the spokesman.
So he would answer the questions, and after a few minutes, that crowd of media would leave. Bullock's fingers would reach for his pizza box, and then another group of seven or eight reporters would walk up, and they would ask him the same questions, because he is the spokesman.
Bullock was polite, because that's the way his grandmother taught him back in Kinston.
"During practice we do everything great," he said. "When we get in the game, for certain spans of the game, they hit shots and we weren't guarding the ball or getting out to three-point shooters. That span right there was stuff we work on in practice. We can't have lapses like that."
The span he's talking about changed a 52-51 Carolina lead with 9:08 remaining to a 64-55 Miami lead with 3:05 left.
It was unfamiliar territory for most of the Tar Heels. Dexter Strickland was despondent after struggling mightily (26 minutes, 0-1 FG, 0 A, 0 R, 0 P). James Michael McAdoo looked stunned. As Roy Williams said, "I've got some really good kids that are hurting right now and they are also feeling a little bit of stress."
That stress was most obvious on the face of Bullock. It was reminiscent of the scene in the Carolina locker room after the Tar Heels dropped a 72-68 decision at Virginia in January of 2006. That was the second straight loss for that club, on the way to three losses in four games.
If you've heard many of Williams's recent press conferences, you've heard several mentions of David Noel, the player he has repeatedly described as "the best leader I've been around." Now, nearly seven years later-wow, seven years later-it sounds like it must have been a lot of fun. Noel got to lead a team with Tyler Hansbrough and Bobby Frasor and Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard, and what we remember most now about that squad is that they went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and ruined J.J. Redick's senior night.
What we forget, though, is how hard it was to get there. After that loss to Virginia, Noel looked physically and mentally exhausted. It was almost painful to stand close to him.
That's where Bullock is right now. He's not as outwardly expressive as Noel, not when things are going well and certainly not when they are going poorly. So he's not the type to shed a tear in a postgame interview, because on Bright Street in Kinston you keep that stuff inside, lest someone use it against you later.
But this one, it was obvious, stung. It hurt worse than the Virginia game, when the Tar Heels simply didn't play with the often-discussed sense of urgency. That urgency was present in this one. Brice Johnson dove out of bounds to save a loose ball. James Michael McAdoo and Marcus Paige drew important charging calls. P.J. Hairston got a big two-handed blocked shot and dove on the floor in the first half to save a loose ball.
The effort was there. It's just that the execution sometimes wasn't, and over the closing minutes, Miami was just better. That seemed to make the outcome that much tougher to accept for the Tar Heels. At Virginia on Sunday, it was more easily reconciled: they would just come back, play harder, play tougher, and get better results. It felt easier, somehow.
Bullock went from that loss and did what he thought he was supposed to do in this new--for him--role as team sage. He called a players-only meeting. The air was cleared.
Off the court progress? Check.
Then he went out on the court and tried to be the player that it feels like he needs to be for this team to be successful. At Virginia, when he was hot as a firecracker, he had just nine shots. Against Miami, when he was less warm, he had 16 field goal attempts, and even though they weren't regularly finding the target, it never felt like he was forcing them, because Carolina needs Bullock to take those shots.
It is great to be that player, especially when the shots are falling. But when they're not--as Noel showed at Virginia in 2006 and as Bullock showed Thursday night--it can be weighty. He had done what he was supposed to do. He did, he thought, the right thing. The outcome, plainly, didn't make sense. This time, it was not the urgency. It was not the effort. It was not the heart. It was...something else, and the player who felt most responsible for identifying the problem was confused.
"We prepare for games every day," Bullock said. "To keep coming out with L's, it hurts." He let out a sigh that sounded more like a 40-year-old man than a 21-year-old college student. One of the most commonly asked questions about this year's team is, "Who is the leader?"
That makes it sound easy. Someone should just "step up." They should just "take control of the team." It sounds really simple when we talk about it on the radio or in print or at the office. We would do it, for sure, if we were in that room. We know we would.
That picture of Bullock and the depth of his sigh, bearing the weight of his teammates and coaches and friends and you and me, shows exactly why it's not that simple--because it's really, really hard to be the leader.
"Somehow, some way, we've got to change it," he said. "We've got to get W's."