The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday January 28th

Despite preseason No. 1 ranking, UNC men's basketball off to slow start this season

UNC graduate forward Pete Nance (32) boxes out a Gardner-Webb player during the men's basketball game against Gardner-Webb at the Dean Smith Center on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. UNC beat Gardner-Webb 72-66.
Buy Photos UNC graduate forward Pete Nance (32) boxes out a Gardner-Webb player during the men's basketball game against Gardner-Webb at the Dean Smith Center on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. UNC beat Gardner-Webb 72-66.

Following a run to the national championship game in April, the North Carolina men's basketball team has had trouble living up to its billing as the preseason No. 1 team so far this season. 

North Carolina wrapped up the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, Ore. with two consecutive defeats, including a loss to an unranked Iowa State team. Even before these losses, though, it didn't seem as if Tar Heels were performing like the top team in the country.

Here are several storylines that have marked the Tar Heels' season thus far:

Close wins and unacceptable mistakes

After kicking off the season with double-digit wins over UNCW and College of Charleston, North Carolina could barely put away a winless Gardner-Webb team, holding on for a mere six-point victory. Graduate transfer forward Pete Nance kept the team afloat in the first half by putting up 16 points, but the team's shortcomings in the game were clear.

Nance fouled out and junior guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis were forced to take over in the second half. While Love said the mistakes the team was making in the game were unacceptable, Nance was assured they could get fixed.

The next game resulted in a 16-point win over James Madison University, although UNC still let the game get uncomfortably close. At one point, the Dukes trailed by only eight points after being down 19 at the half. However, unlike the Gardner-Webb game, North Carolina was able to turn the game back more dominantly in its favor.

In the Phil Knight Invitational, UNC recorded an 89-81 first-round win over Portland, aided once again by Nance and Love, who put up 28 and 23 points, respectively. But after the narrow victory, the team stumbled in its final two contests.

Despite leading by five with just over three minutes to go, the Tar Heels allowed Cyclone guard Caleb Grill to catch fire in the closing minutes, which ultimately led to a 70-65 defeat. When the Tar Heels battled through four overtime periods against No. 18 Alabama two days later, costly turnovers plagued the team's chance to pick up its first ranked victory of the season. UNC lost, 103-101 after four overtime periods.

The Tar Heels seem to be aware of their mistakes, but now facing a two-game losing streak, the team must work to fix these mishaps before it faces more high-quality opponents.

Yellow flags & team identity

Although Davis said the team's meager performance against Gardner-Webb didn't raise any red flags, he did mention that some "yellow flags" had developed. 

The coach said the team was lacking the "hunger and thirst" he had expected after the Tar Heels' tournament run last season, so he tasked them with working as a team to choose words that they wanted to define their identity. The team responded with a printed list signed by each player highlighting their new goals.

In the matchup against James Madison  — the first since defining their new identity — the Tar Heels responded by scoring what was then their second-highest scoring output of the year. The defense also showed a renewed sense of urgency, holding the Dukes to 64 points when they entered the game averaging 105.2. UNC looked unified once again when facing Portland, going on a 14-3 run late in the game to pull off the win. 

However, in North Carolina's first Power 5 matchup of the season against Iowa State, the yellow flags returned. No Tar Heel put up more than 15 points and they fell apart in the final minutes, missing four of their last six shots and having four turnovers in the final 5:43.

The lack of hunger and thirst by this North Carolina team is concerning, and as increasingly competitive matchups approach, UNC must hone in on its team identity and minimize mistakes if the Tar Heels want to continue to be considered one of the top teams in the country.  

@lindseyashe_

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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