ATLANTA—This was supposed to be just a fun little anecdote about a freshman having a freshman moment. As the Tar Heels prepared for Saturday’s opening tip at Georgia Tech, the starters walked onto the McCamish Pavilion court. On the bench, the Carolina substitutes began stripping off their warm-up shirts. It’s just part of the ritual, something that happens every game without being noticed.
And then Tony Bradley pulled off his white warm-up shirt…and about that same time, realized he’d never put on his game jersey.
Managers, doing their usual thankless job, had to sprint the long distance—the visiting locker room in Atlanta is up a set of steps and then up a long ramp from the court—to retrieve it.
Bradley was hardly the first Tar Heel to make this mistake; even a grizzled veteran like Marcus Paige did it once last season. But it was supposed to be just a humorous footnote to the ACC opener. Instead, it turned out to be indicative of the entire afternoon.
Carolina’s 75-63 loss to Georgia Tech is perhaps the most startling conference result of the Roy Williams era in Chapel Hill. Nationally, the game was expected to be mostly a formality—and that’s exactly how the Tar Heels appeared to treat it.
Here is what Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said a half-hour before the game on the Tar Heel Sports Network: “I don’t know if you can compare North Carolina and Georgia Tech right now…We’re going to have to play near perfect in order to have an opportunity to win the game.”
I’m familiar with coachspeak. This was not coachspeak. This was an opposing coach giving a frank assessment of the progress of his team and the strengths of the opponent. But then Carolina proceeded to give the youthful Yellow Jackets an opportunity to believe they might be able to win.
Tech shot 39.4 percent in the first half, didn’t make a three-pointer, saw more visiting fans than home fans in the crowd of 7,754, and only trailed by three at the break.
And suddenly, early in the second half, you could see them come to a conclusion that appeared to surprise even themsleves—this thing might be doable.
“As the game went on,” Roy Williams said, “we gave them more confidence.”
Sometimes an opponent gets hot and you simply have to give them credit for having a great afternoon. That wasn’t this game. Georgia Tech shot 41.5 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from the three-point line.
What the Jackets did do was play a zone defense that completely befuddled the Tar Heels. Early, Carolina tried to shoot over the zone, taking eight of its first ten shots from beyond the three-point line. When those didn’t fall, it was as if they ran out of any other ideas. While Tech found just enough offense by driving to the basket and getting to the free throw line, Carolina continued to either turn the ball over or take questionable shots. Thirty-six percent of the shots the Tar Heels took were three-pointers. Coming into the game, that figure was 28 percent.
Some of the nearly two dozen turnovers were forced. But a healthy minority were just outright careless.
“We didn’t attack the zone,” said Nate Britt, who almost singlehandedly kept Carolina in the game. “We weren’t able to get it inside. We weren’t able to get the ball to our bigs. The guards couldn’t get penetration. They wanted us to shoot all outside shots, and that’s what we did.”
This should have been the telltale sign: Williams went into the halftime locker room and, as he put it, “I challenged them.”
Carolina responded by coming out and turning the ball over on its first three possessions of the second half. “That didn’t work,” Williams said of his halftime speech, “and that’s my fault.”
It wasn’t one thing that didn’t work in Atlanta. It was basically every single thing, other than Britt. The Tar Heels went through one less than memorable stretch in the middle of the game when the five starters (who also combined for 13 of the 20 turnovers) combined to make one out of 17 field goal attempts. One out of 17! What else can you say? How do you gameplan for or try to correct it when basically everything goes wrong? Carolina will lose other games this year. But they won't lose any other games this year in this fashion.
But this story started with words from Pastner, and it’s going to end that same way. In that same pregame conversation, here’s what the Georgia Tech coach said about Carolina. “They were a shot away from the national title and I think they’re better this year. They’re not a complicated team in terms of running crazy stuff. They’re so efficient at what they do. They’re a great rebounding team. Justin Jackson is playing at as high a level as anyone in the country. They have one of the greatest coaches to ever coach the game in Roy Williams. It’s the way Jackson is playing, it’s the way their bigs are playing, it’s the way they rebound—they’re rebounding almost 50 percent of their misses. That’s surreal. And they’re one of the best defensive teams in the country, for crying out loud.”
Saturday’s outright stinker doesn’t change anything in the above paragraph. Carolina is still that team. But they’re also a team that showed some holes in the very first conference game of the year. They’re not the only one. It’s not January yet, and Carolina, Duke, Virginia and Louisville all have a league loss. It may be that kind of season.
It just wasn’t supposed to be that kind of opener.