BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Might be a tad early for this question, but let’s ask it anyway.
Is there something wrong with North Carolina?
A week ago, the Tar Heels were unbeaten and No. 1, though the difficulty with some of their supposedly outmanned early victims was getting conspicuous. Then the losing started. Iowa State rolled past them with a 17-5 run in the last four minutes, Alabama outlasted them in four overtimes, Indiana’s 77-65 conquest Wednesday night featured . . . well, as the Hoosiers’ Trayce Jackson-Davis described a game that began with North Carolina missing 14 of its first 16 shots, "I thought our defense was very constrictive, like an anaconda. We just really sucked the life out of UNC early and they couldn’t get any big shots honestly."
Add big South American snakes to the list of Tar Heel woes. The team that brought nearly everyone back from last April’s national championship game is now 5-3, just dropped 17 spots in the Associated Press poll in a single week, and faces another hazardous road game and the chance of a fourth consecutive defeat Sunday at Virginia Tech. According to ESPN, only four preseason No. 1 teams in 62 years have lost three in a row.
There are some rough numbers from the streak, such as North Carolina struggling to make 25 percent from the 3-point line, getting outscored 58-23 in points off turnovers and making 10 more turnovers than assists. Indiana positively crunched the Tar Heels 50-24 in points in the paint. As late as the 16-minute mark of the second half, the Hoosiers had as many steals and blocked shots as North Carolina had field goals. Besides his 21 points and 10 rebounds, Jackson-Davis collected four assists, which was only one fewer than the entire North Carolina team.
Panic time, yet? Maybe more concern.
Armando Bacot sat in the locker room Wednesday night and tried to put the low times in perspective.
"Individually none of us are really playing at the level where we can play at. I don’t know, we’ve just got to figure it out.
"We want to win and we’re not putting out the best product. It’s unfortunate and it’s sad and it’s something we’re going to have to go through. But we’re going to go through it together as a team and I think that’s what’s most important."
Nearby, Caleb Love reminded that a long road is only eight-games old.
"We’ve got a full season ahead, it’s not the end of the world. We’ve just got to keep our heads high, change our approach, get back to the drawing board, and fix whatever we need to fix."
OK, but what needs fixing?
Part of this is the product of a brutal stretch in the schedule. The Tar Heels left early last week for the Phil Knight event in Oregon where in four days, they struggled past Portland and lost twice. Then there was the 2,000-mile flight to Indiana. By Wednesday’s game, they had been on the road more than a week. Plus, final exams are starting Friday. Also, they had wandered into a very dangerous place for visitors. Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall was packed, hostile and a weapon.
"Indiana, they just really took advantage of us," Bacot said. "The atmosphere was crazy."
Bacot sat at his locker with a sore ankle and a shoulder he had banged up during the game, and sounded like a weary road warrior. "It’s definitely a lot different experience than I’ve had since I’ve been here. There’s been a lot of stuff, but it’s what we signed up for."
Davis wasn’t looking for excuses. "We lost tonight because Indiana was better," he said. But about Carolina’s recent full plate: "It didn’t factor into the outcome of the game, but it is a factor."
Other elements were cited as well.
How the Hoosiers defense so controlled the night. "They got to where they wanted to, but we couldn’t get to where we wanted to," Bacot said.
How there was no answer for Indiana’s star. "The issue was Trayce Jackson-Davis," Hubert Davis said. "They have a player that they can run offense through that can generate points for them on every possession. And as of right now we don’t have that. Not only can he score, he’s a gifted passer."
How the turnover points have been a steady drain on their ability to get out of trouble. "Not necessarily we’re turning the ball over a lot," Davis said. "But when we turn the ball over it’s a pick-six almost every time."
How North Carolina just needs to bring more force. "Every game we’ve just got to come out and punch them in the mouth, just like we’re getting punched in the mouth," Love said. "We’ve got to be tough enough and smart enough to get open."
The Tar Heels can turn to recent experience as a guide. "We’ve been here before," Bacot said. "It’s obviously tough. We’re playing hard but the small details, they’re not clicking for us right now. We’re not going to quit. It’s a long season." What he meant was last year, when North Carolina endured such potholes as losing by 29 points to Kentucky, 20 at home to Duke, back-to-back to Miami and Wake Forest by 28 and 22, and consecutive thumpings by Purdue and Tennessee.
All those long nights, and North Carolina ended up leading Kansas by 15 points at halftime of the national championship game. Could be this team always needs time to figure out how to cover its flaws.
Davis talked of getting back to basics. "I’ve told them, individually and as a team, you always reach a level where everybody is just as talented as you are, just as athletic, and so what differentiates you individually and us as a team is our commitment and being bound by the discipline and details of our fundamentals. Two things I’m excited about. One, going home. And two is, we get to practice Friday and Saturday. We haven’t practiced in over a week and a half."
Even with North Carolina’s woes, its league carried the 24th and last ACC/Big Ten Challenge, 8-6. The ACC matches up with the SEC next year. The conference closed this event with Duke beating Ohio State to finish an unfathomable 20-4 in the Challenge, with Notre Dame getting a 23-point lead on Michigan State and never looking back, with Virginia giving Michigan 45 points in the first half but holding the Wolverines to 23 in the second, with Wake Forest inflicting a rare home loss on Wisconsin. The ACC won almost all the marquee games.
But not this one.
Still, no alarm bells are going off for Davis. Not yet, anyway.
"We’re a good basketball team and we haven’t played our best the last three games," Davis said. "But we’re going to get better and we’re going to improve and we’re going to bounce back, plain and simple, period, the end."