CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Roughly 20 minutes had passed since his North Carolina team had lost a grind-it-out battle against rival Duke, and Armando Bacot had taken his customary seat behind a small table with his back to a wall-mounted television.
The questions started coming from a reporters surrounding him, probing what had gone wrong. But they weren’t just about one game. They were about an entire season, one that has seen an experienced team open with a No. 1 ranking after a magical ride to the national-title game only to close the regular season in precarious at best standing for a return to the NCAA Tournament.
“Could you have ever thought that you’d be in this position?” one reporter asked.
“No,” Bacot said, “but I’m here.”
The Tar Heels (19-12) are flirting with becoming the first team to open at No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press poll and miss the NCAA Tournament since its expansion to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve struggled to make outside shots or win close games, building a postseason resume filled with far more missed opportunities than high-end wins.
And that has them headed to this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament likely needing multiple victories — and maybe nothing short of the title — to ensure they hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
They open play Wednesday as a No. 7 seed in a second-round game against the Louisville-Boston College winner.
There are multiple answers for what has gone wrong.
Second-year coach Hubert Davis has mentioned his team looking weighed down by some of the high expectations to repeat last year’s run, which included spoiling retiring Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game at Duke and then handing him the final loss of his career in the Final Four during an epic first-ever in the NCAA Tournament between the storied rivals.
“We knew since the start of the season,” starting guard R.J. Davis said. “Just the expectations that were being upholded, just out there in the media, just the noise. … Sometimes you put too much stress on yourself and you try to meet those expectations (instead of) just going out there and just play freely.”
Some problems are obvious, such as flirting with setting a program record for the worst 3-point shooting (.309) in a season — which has made it difficult to space the floor for driving lanes or Bacot inside unlike last year’s late run.
Yet there have also been trouble with details and closing out games, a surprise for a team that returned four starters.
Take Saturday’s 62-57 loss to the Blue Devils. UNC missed multiple shots for the lead or to tie late, the last being Caleb Love’s leaning 3-pointer down 60-57 with 8 seconds left. Yet both Hubert Davis and first-year Duke coach Jon Scheyer mentioned another telling sequence after UNC had hit back-to-back 3-pointers to take a 49-45 lead.
First UNC defender Puff Johnson allowed left-handed Duke wing Mark Mitchell drive to his strong hand and score on a layup.
Then Duke re-inserted Dereck Lively II, a defensive-minded big man who scores through movement and activity moreso than back-to-the-basket moves. Almost immediately, Duke point guard Tyrese Proctor saw Lively pick-and-rolling freely to the basket for a lob and tying dunk that erased momentum.
“That was the moment for us,” Scheyer said, “and that was the moment to dig down.”
“I’ve talked to you guys all year and to the team about the importance of discipline and details,” Hubert Davis said. “That’s a perfect example of discipline and details from a defensive standpoint. Those are things that have been told and taught. Those are the type of things you just can’t do down the stretch.”
Now the Tar Heels can only look forward to what’s left.
They stood at 1-9 in Quadrant 1 games atop the resume, the lone win coming last week against No. 13 Virginia at home. The losses included a four-overtime setback against now-No. 2 Alabama in November.
Of the 38 teams to be AP preseason No. 1 since 1985, nearly half (18) have at least reached the Final Four. Six teams won the championship — most recently, the Tar Heels in 2008-09 — and seven others reached the title game.
And of that group, nary a one has missed the field entirely.
“Yes, we know we’re in a tough spot,” R.J. Davis said. “but we’ve just got to go out there and just hoop.”
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