SOUTH BEND, Ind. – It had been a perplexing night for North Carolina – another one – and anyone wanting the current status of the Tar Heels needed only to ask the man standing outside the locker room.
Roy Williams had two words to describe himself at the moment.
“Frustrated,” he said. “And challenged.”North Carolina had survived at Notre Dame 69-68, and any road victory in the ACC must be appreciated. Then again, the Irish were missing their top two players because of injury, and to win, the Tar Heels had to scurry from six points behind in the last six minutes, and Notre Dame had to miss a point-blank put-back at the end.
There was also the thumping the week before at Virginia, when the Tar Heels managed only 49 points. The loss at home to Wofford, the defeat at Florida State, the 18-point thrashing by Michigan State when they shot a sub-arctic 24.6 percent.
Nothing shabby about their 14-4 record, but nothing that reassuring, either.
“We’ve got to raise our attention level, we’ve got to raise our energy level,” Williams said. “We’ve got to be more efficient, and the only way to do that in my opinion is to play with your brain and your heart both. Our brain is involved, our heart is involved, but not at the highest level it needs to be.”
“There’s a difference between wanting it, and having a tremendous gut feeling and desire to do the right thing, and we haven’t taken that major step. Our kids are buying in, but there are different degrees of buying in.”
“Another thing, when teams are coming at us, we’re not competing as hard as they are when they come at us.”
With all the attention on Duke, on Michigan State, on Villanova and Oklahoma’s Trae Young and the sizzling Big 12, it’s almost seemed North Carolina has been off the national radar, an odd place for the defending national champion to be.
“I don’t mind that,” Williams said. “I don’t know that we’ve done anything to deserve any different.”
Yes, the Tar Heels lead the nation in rebound margin. And yes, they’re getting good production from Luke Maye (18.2) and Joel Berry II (17.4). Maye came alive in the 2017 NCAA Tournament regional, beat Kentucky at the buzzer, and turned into a different force. His career average before this season was 3.4. It’s been 34 years since two North Carolina players ended a season scoring at least 17 points a game. Their names might ring a bell -- Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins.
And yes, these Tar Heels may have thumped some good teams. Michigan by 15, Ohio State by 14, and winning at Tennessee is not easy.
But there have been uneasy performances, and the Notre Dame game was one. The 20 Irish offense rebounds particularly irked Williams.
“My frustration button is at a high level right now,” he said afterward. “I’m going to challenge them. If you’re going to step up and take the shot, make the sucker. Truthfully, our 'best five players' is going small, but if we can’t get a rebound, I’m going to put somebody else in there that can get a rebound. So someway, somehow, we’ve got to solve that issue.”
He has national championship veterans in the locker room who understand. Berry, for instance. His free throws with seven seconds left saved the game, and afterward in the locker room – as Williams told his Tar Heels he had to do a better job – Berry spoke up and said it was on the players, not the coach.
“I know we got this win but at the same time, we can’t squeak out a win like that,” Berry said later. “We can’t wait until the end when we’re down and desperate to do the things they want us to do from the start of the game.
“The calendar is something that we need to take a look at. There’s not much time left to buy in. I know this was the fifth game in the ACC but those things roll around fast. What I mean by buying in, is making sure we’re getting the effort and intensity we need.”
Theo Pinson is another.
“This year is a little bit different because we have a lot of young guys," Pinson said. "Ask the veterans on this team, we understand what every night is going to be like. We’ve never been defending national champions coming in, but ever since my freshman year, people have been gunning for us.
“We understand if we just cut out the little stuff, we’ll get over that hump.”
They’ll need to soon, so Roy Williams can take his finger off the frustration button.