PORTLAND, Ore. — North Carolina entered the PK Invitational undefeated and atop college basketball with the No. 1 ranking beside its name. The Tar Heels will fly back to North Carolina with a 1-2 record in the PK85, no wins recorded against NCAA Tournament-level competition and are due to plunge in the polls.
Making matters more urgent, next up is the team’s first road game of the season — at No. 11 Indiana. The Tar Heels are staring down the possibility of their first three-game losing streak since February 2020.
But don’t tell Carolina coach Hubert Davis to get down. He refuses to, in fact.
“It would be negligent on my part to walk away and think that this is a disappointment,” Davis said after his team lost 103-101 in a frenzied and sloppy four-overtime affair in the third-place game of the PKI against 18th- ranked Alabama. “Second of all, it’s only November. We’ve played seven games. We have a lot more to go. And so, it’s a long season. I feel like we’re taking steps forward to be the best that this year’s team can be. And I’m very encouraged.”
With UNC’s losses to Iowa State and Alabama in a three-day span, it’s the second time the program has dropped back-to-back games while being ranked No. 1 (the other in 1986). Sunday was also the first time an AP top-ranked team played in a four-overtime game, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Many North Carolina fans will not share Davis’ optimism or patience. But because of the environment — the game, in Veterans Memorial Coliseum, happened at the same time as the Purdue-Duke PK Legacy title game in the Moda Center next door — and the wacky nature of going to four overtimes in a sparsely attended arena, the end result felt more given away than earned. Alabama and UNC had skittish end-game execution in regulation and through all the overtimes.
To wit: In a 102-101 game, a near-goaltending call against Alabama’s Charles Bediako with 8.9 left (that was overturned) wound up giving possession to Bama on account of an inadvertent whistle. The Tide then turned it over on the inbounds play. UNC’s chance — and the Heels matched Alabama’s incompetence by turning it over as well. Alabama wound up with the ball, Jaden Bradley sank one more foul shot and UNC couldn’t convert on a scurry of a final possession.
“At the end of the day, Alabama made one more play than we did,” Davis said.
Maybe the concerning thing is, although Alabama’s a Top 25 team, UNC shouldn’t be in a position to need merely one more play than Alabama to win its games. The Tar Heels led by six in the third overtime and let that lead disintegrate. This win was Alabama’s first over a No. 1 team in the regular season since 1994, and its first overall since defeating Stanford in the 2004 NCAA Tournament. Tide coach Nate Oats said he’d never been involved in a four-OT game before. Alabama will head back 2-1 in the PKI, with a win over Michigan State along with Friday night’s loss to No. 20 UConn.
You might expect the coaches to have different dispositions after a game like this, but Davis was almost as encouraged as Oats was thrilled by the win. Davis isn’t yet 50 games into his career as a head coach, but he’s showing he’s wired differently than most. Perhaps he’s harsher or more critical with his guys behind closed doors. But outwardly? It’s relentless positivity. The players weren’t too down on themselves afterwards either. A lot of that stems from just how odd the game was. That’s fair. At a certain point, this game changed from being a well-played contest and devolved into something that felt more random and haphazard in nature. In the bigger picture, however: UNC went 1-2 over the past four days, and the one win was a tough one against Portland. Hard to be encouraged by that.
But I’m not Hubert Davis.
“I’m disappointed in the final outcome, but I can’t be any more proud in the way they competed,” he said.
This kind of tone might be what this team needs. Davis would know better than anyone.
Regardless of Davis’ philosophical approach, the Tar Heels are in the midst of a stretch that could go a long way to defining their regular season and their NCAA Tournament route. The Indiana road game is followed four days later by the ACC opener — on the road — against a 6-1 Virginia Tech team. Not unthinkable that UNC goes from 5-0 to 5-4 in nine days’ time. If that happens, the Heels would be viewed similarly to how they were a year ago at this time when they got wins over mid-major competition but looked flat and overmatched against a lot of the power-conference teams they faced.
In fact, 5-4 would be a worse situation. Last season’s Tar Heels team didn’t take its fourth loss until its 14th game, in January. There’s plenty to figure out. The defense is the most obvious lingering concern. The Heels’ per-possession defensive efficiency ranks outside the top 100 through the first three weeks of the season, according to BartTorvik.com. Huge red flag.
Another thing, and maybe this is a one-game situation and four overtimes changes things, but … UNC’s best player was relegated to the bench down the stretch. Preseason All-American Armando Bacot wasn’t helping playing the 5, so Davis put Pete Nance in the middle in an effort to try and get out with a win. Davis said Bacot was also hampered by an ankle tweak.
In the NCAA Tournament, Bacot was THE guy, the one who had six double-doubles in six games, doing so while overcoming injury and carrying Carolina to the title game. I’m not concerned about Bacot long-term, but his absence was obvious late, and his rebounding prowess could have been the difference if he was on the court.
I guess I’m most surprised by how mysterious UNC is. A team with this many familiar faces didn’t figure to be so vexing.
The core that got North Carolina to a 17-4 mark to close out last season was why the Heels were awarded with a preseason No. 1 ranking. We haven’t seen that team yet this season. UNC might not deserve to be ranked at all, frankly. It struggled in its mid-major wins and it lacks a signature victory to this point. Davis’ optimism is unrelenting, but good-vibes-only doesn’t get you Ws in tough spots against tough teams. From the defense to Caleb Love’s shot selection to questions about how deep the bench can be, there’s a lot to figure out and no knowing how long it will take this team to find itself.