If the Dean E. Smith Center felt a little flat after a loss to Boston College, imagine what it will feel like next week after a dismal defensive performance against Wake Forest. In my column Sunday, I thought the Heels had a chance to rekindle a spark of energy on Sunday. Instead, another loss only fuels a fire of apprehension and worry.
Here is the column:
Heels’ fans know the worst can happen now
The panic was palpable.
That said, it wasn’t completely evident on the surface. But peering in a little closer, you could see it. You could feel it.
You darn well could hear it.
Walking around the town, it was clear that the No. 1 team in the nation wasn’t playing in Chapel Hill anymore. Sure, it was only the College of Charleston in the building on a Wednesday night, but that was exactly the point.
It was another game. Just another game.
Not a game where the best in all the land was playing. No. 1 means every game is an event. But No. 3? Not that big of a deal unless the opponent is a good one.
It’s a status thing, really. To be where the best is means something.
And so the Tar Heels played, and in the second half, played really well. The Heels played well in the first half, too, but only on one end of the floor. Charleston had eight 3-pointers and 41 points at the half. Hence, the dull drone of the dome.
And the feeling was there. This is how they lost on Sunday. No way they beat Duke like this. Worse, no way they win six games in late March and early April like this.
Heels’ fans definitely wanted to see more out of the club, but it was hard to see over the newspaper a couple of fans were reading in the upper deck. Who brings The Wall Street Journal to a college basketball game involving one of the preeminent programs in the history of the game?
Tar Heels fans, it turns out.
Sam Cassell would have been proud.
The Heels rolled over the poor Cougars in the second half. The 3s stopped falling, which meant long rebounds, and with nobody taller than 6-foot-7 on the roster, that meant lots and lots of fast break opportunities for the boys in blue.
And they’re good at that.
The game was a laugher by the 15-minute mark of the second half, the prospect of scoring 100 points nothing more than a foregone conclusion.
And so they filed out of the dome, the alma mater playing as if it were a dirge, and the fight song a bit clangy in an emptying arena. Once outside, it was easy to sense the muted apprehension in the voices of the winers and cheesers, worried to death that this year might get away without a championship banner being hung in the rafters.
But that’s the price North Carolina fans must pay this year. Just days after a stinging loss in the ACC opener, not only did the mighty Heels seem the miss the message with a flat first half against a lesser team, but on the same night the team that ripped the bounce of the fans’ steps took a stiff jab on the chin from an Ivy League school, one coached by a Dukie, no less.
It’s win or else this season for the Heels. That’s been crystal clear since the studs spurned the pros to strut back to the comfy confines of the college game, something they’ve mostly dominated aside from 10 minutes here against Georgetown and the first 20 against Kansas there.
And 40 against Boston College.
It can happen anywhere, anytime. And in January, it stings with the cold while making the long walk back uphill to Franklin Street.
The sting fades, though, if only to a sigh and a shrug of the shoulders after a win against an overmatched team.
But Heels’ fans the ones, at least, who prefer to actually watch the games rather than read the paper want the fire back. And, as good as the Heels are, it’s pretty likely it will be re-ignited at some point. Maybe even as early as tonight in Winston-Salem.
But the threat is real now. It can happen. It did happen.
And it might happen again.
At the worst possible time.
And so the real season begins. The edges of the seats are about to get warm.
It’s only one loss, they say.
But like it’s always said, it only takes one.