It's not often that North Carolina basketball finds itself trapped in the ACC basement. But that's exactly the situation the Tar Heels (10-16, 3-12 ACC) are in as the 2019-20 year winds to a close.
A 77-76 loss to Notre Dame on Monday night was another nail in a coffin full of them for UNC this season, a game in which the Irish erased a 15-point deficit in the second half and won on a last-second 3-pointer by Nate Laszewski. Roy Williams' team is in sole possession of last place in the conference, worse than the likes of Wake Forest (4-11) and Miami (5-10).
With not much to play for besides pride — barring a miracle run in the ACC Tournament — the only question left for North Carolina fans is this: just how bad has this season been, really? How to reconcile a disheartening, Murphy's Law-testing campaign with decades of near-uninterrupted hoops excellence?
The first thing to know is that this year is by far the worst of Roy Williams' UNC tenure. You have to go back to 2009-10 to find a season that even approaches this one: the Tar Heels, then one year removed from an NCAA title, went 20-17 and lost in the NIT final.
But that campaign never sunk to the depths of this one. 2009-10 saw North Carolina drop four straight games exactly once — that's already happened three different times in 2019-20. A six-game ACC losing streak earlier this year broke a program record, and the loss to Notre Dame was part of another skid that, if it continues against (gulp) Louisville on Saturday, would make seven straight conference defeats.
All that is to say: this year is a virtual lock to become the first losing season for the Tar Heels under Williams. Let's (generously) assume that to end the regular season, UNC falls to Louisville and Duke but knocks off Syracuse, N.C. State and Wake Forest. In that case, the Tar Heels would be 13-18 and would have to rip off five wins in five days in the ACC Tournament — a heretofore unaccomplished feat for any team — to even up their record, qualify for the NCAA Tournament and keep the hope of a winning season alive.
In 15 years at Kansas, too, Williams never posted one below the .500 mark. Who could have predicted that Williams' 32nd season as a head coach would be the one to end that run?
Consider the state of things from a program standpoint: per Sports Reference, the Tar Heels have finished with a losing record just ten times in 109 seasons. Under Matt Doherty, they went 8-20 in 2001-02, the worst year by winning percentage in UNC history; before that, you have to go all the way back to 1961-62, Dean Smith's 8-9 inaugural campaign, to find a season with more losses than wins.
That's two (about to be three) losing seasons in 60 years. Forgive the Tar Heels — players, coaches, fans — for not knowing how to react.
The season stats for this team are just as historically weighty. UNC currently averages 71.2 points per game. Only one Tar Heel squad since 1954 has scored less — the 1981-82 national title team, oddly enough — and only one other Roy Williams team has dipped below 76 points per outing (the 2009-10 team, at 74.5.)
Going into the game against Notre Dame, this year's squad had posted its lowest field goal percentage (41.3 percent) since the 1959-60 season, and its worst 3-point percentage ever: 28.7 percent, markedly worse than the previous low of 32.7 percent in 2015-16. These are some of the things the 2019-20 Tar Heels will be remembered for — not just loss after heart-rending loss, but an offensive ineffectiveness unseen in Chapel Hill since before the inception of the shot clock.
Combine that with personnel that has yet to gel, a brutal conference slate and a steady and unforgiving stream of injuries, and you have a season of North Carolina basketball that will be historic for all the wrong reasons.
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