Part of the complexity of being a head coach is the completely unknown response a team will have to adversity.
Head coaches are in charge of putting the parts together that make a team--they recruit the players, analyze the depth chart, evaluate years in advance how certain players might work together. Then they form all those parts into a roster, mix them together, roll them out on the court...and have very little idea how they will respond the first time an opponent goes on a 10-2 run.
Carolina travels to Durham tomorrow night with some recent road wounds. The Tar Heels are coming off a 26-point spanking in Coral Gables, and they've also endured road defeats at NC State, Virginia, Texas and Indiana. All of those losses have something in common: at least one run by the home team that Carolina was completely unable to stem. In many of those cases, the run eventually put the game so far out of reach that even a late Tar Heel run wasn't enough to close the deficit.
You can see why that trend might be concerning: the trip to Duke will feature a combination of potent opponent and ferocious environment that has so far been toxic. Also still on the schedule are trips to Maryland (the Terps have won three of the last four over Carolina in College Park), Georgia Tech (the Jackets have won 4 of 5 meetings in Atlanta in the Roy Williams era) and Clemson. Maryland and Duke, especially, get consistent votes from Tar Heel players as two of the toughest places to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"We've got to be able to withstand some adversity in a hostile environment," Roy Williams said this week. "If the other team gets rolling, we have not bounced back in being able to handle that very well yet. I'm saying 'yet' because I think we're going to get there."
There's precedent in the Williams era for a team showing road jitters but then evolving into a confident squad away from the Smith Center. The problem, however, is that it usually hasn't happened until the next season.
The 2003-04 team, Williams's first at Carolina, went just 2-6 on the road in the ACC. The next year--with many of the same players--they went 6-2.
"We began to embrace the 'us against the world' concept," says Jawad Williams, who was a junior on the '04 team and one of the senior leaders of the '05 squad. "We knew going into any environment that we could win as long as we stayed together and played our style of basketball regardless of the situation we would be in."
That's a trait this year's team hasn't yet developed, as Marcus Paige noted as recently as Saturday following the loss to Miami. It helps to have pure talent, because that tends to create the confidence that allows a team to be undeterred by an opposing run. But it's not always a foolproof solution.
The 2007 club lost four ACC road games--all four to unranked opponents and all while Carolina was ranked in the nation's top eight. That same group proceeded to win its next 15 road games in a row and go 14-2 on the road in the ACC over the next two seasons.
Those teams were very talented, including the program's all-time leading scorer and a go-go point guard who was so untroubled by the details that he sometimes had to be reminded to tie his shoes. But they also had a certain swagger on the road. After dispatching Duke, 101-87, in 2009, Ty Lawson ran off the floor grinning at the Cameron Indoor Stadium students.
"They talk trash," he said. "It's our rival. On the way out, I did the spirit fingers back to them. They were looking back at me like I was crazy. I was like, 'We won. We're out of here.'"
That type of confidence is usually built on a signature road win. The Tyler Hansbrough class had the senior day win at Duke in 2006. Jawad Williams remembers the January blowout in Charlottesville as his team's turning point.
"After what we did there, we knew that not only could we win on the road, we knew we could completely embarrass them in their own home," says Williams, who now plays in Paris. "We always talked about the best thing to notice on the road was a shocked and quiet crowd leaving early to beat the traffic."
This year's Tar Heels have a handful of solid road wins, but none yet of the caliber that convince an entire team they're just as bulletproof away from the Smith Center as they are inside the friendly confines.
They'll get another opportunity on Wednesday night.
"It's especially typical for a young team," Roy Williams said at his radio show with Jones Angell Monday night. "Experienced guys are confident guys. Right now, I hate even saying this because we've played twenty games, but the bottom line is we are still young, and they have a tough time handling it on the road."