Roy Williams sank into his chair and sighed. It wasn't angry, wasn't barbed in the way coaches can be after a game when they're ready to voice their frustrations. In that moment, it was just accepting.
Accepting that his team lost. Accepting that this North Carolina team is the roster and, excepting first-year guard Cole Anthony's return from injury, it won't be changing this year.
"I'd like to come up with something witty and something different, but I don't have it."
That's how Williams opened his press conference following UNC's 73-65 loss to Pittsburgh on Wednesday night. The next eight minutes were likely the closest the Hall of Fame coach will ever get to saying that he, his team, Chapel Hill and the world need to adjust expectations.
Williams made some waves earlier in the week by saying, quite plainly, that this is the "least gifted" team he has ever coached at UNC. By most measures, he is correct.
Former four-star recruits Garrison Brooks and Brandon Robinson were valuable role players on last year's team that went a blistering 16-2 in the ACC. Now, following Anthony's injury, they have been forced into bigger roles, with mixed success.
First-year guard Jeremiah Francis has been competent, but unable to buy a bucket, still finding his way after not playing an organized competitive game of basketball since his sophomore year of high school due to injury. The brief and bright spark-plug that was Anthony Harris is out for the season after tearing his ACL.
The only McDonald All-American available is first-year center Armando Bacot, who has struggled at times to compete at the college level, but bounced back to an extent against a much smaller Panthers team.
"The last two, three games I was struggling, just fighting the voice in my head. I mean, I guess it was kind of just affecting the state, but I just said last night, just forget it," Bacot said, before offering an admission on the state of the team.
"We're struggling right now, and I can't afford — we're not talented enough for me — to not go out there and perform."
This is the team. None of the players will say it, but UNC would be lucky to make the NCAA Tournament. And for the second straight game, the Tar Heels couldn't give Williams his 880th victory to pass Dean Smith in all-time wins.
Despite that, the team's veterans refused to offer excuses for their play.
"I still have my goal in mind: try to get to that NCAA Tournament and win it," Robinson said. "I just can’t speak for anybody else right now, but if I had to speak for everybody else, I’d say that we still believe that we can win every game we play.”
North Carolina was up nine at the half, and led by as many as 14. But as the Panthers, one of the worst shooting teams in the country, caught fire in the second half, that lead burned away into a hole the Tar Heels weren't able to dig themselves out of.
They simply couldn't overcome an outlier shooting night.
"I think we settled a lot and we kind of just panicked," Brooks said solemnly after the game.
Robinson, like Brooks, was quiet after the game. The veterans' words seemed to sink into the air, burdened by the weight of realization that this is, in fact, their reality.
"If we can be the least talented team (Williams) has had, but we can go out there and win, I don't think it really matters," Robinson said about his coach's comments earlier in the week.
The issue is that at this level, especially in the ACC, talent and winning must go hand in hand to a degree. It seems Roy Williams and North Carolina have realized that by now.
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