Column: This year isn't last year...and that's OK

It felt like a loss from the start: a motivated Clemson team raining threes on a shorthanded North Carolina squad, one just three days removed from losing in overtime to a rival and mere hours removed from losing a scholarship player to suspension.

But Tuesday's performance was as feared for UNC, and maybe that's the worst part. And when the buzzer finally sounded in Tuesday's 82-78 loss to the No. 20 Tigers, the No. 19 Tar Heels were met with a solemn reality.

For the second time in as many road games, the opposing fans stormed the court at the expense of the defending champions. This time, the crowd at Littlejohn Coliseum was celebrating Clemson's first win over the Tar Heels since Jan 13, 2010, when North Carolina was also coming off a national championship season.

Fans can complain all they want about glorifying a top-25 win, but the fact remains: nobody would be storming the court if the Tar Heels (16-7, 5-5 ACC) were winning. Instead, the losses keep mounting.

Roy Williams' team has already matched its loss total from last season. But maybe that's not the death note it appears to be. | Photo by Smith Hardy

Roy Williams' team has already matched its loss total from last season. But maybe that's not the death note it appears to be. | Photo by Smith Hardy

Last year, North Carolina lost seven games en route to a national championship. Now, after three straight losses, UNC has now dropped seven games with nearly half of its ACC schedule still remaining — including two meetings with No. 4 Duke, trips to Louisville and N.C. State and the home finale against Miami.

Those final three teams are ranked just outside the AP Top 25 Poll. The Tar Heels might soon be there, too.

North Carolina hasn't been unranked since the 2013-14, the last time the Tar Heels lost three straight games. But this has been a season of broken streaks. A 23-game home winning streak? Snapped by Wofford in December. A 15-game ACC home winning streak? Ruined by N.C. State on Saturday. A two-year run as ACC regular-season champions? That's likely over, too, with No. 2 Virginia well ahead in the conference standings.

This team has also reached the national championship game for two consecutive seasons. Raise your hand if you think a third trip is coming.

Tuesday's loss snapped the Tar Heels' 10-game winning streak against the Tigers (18-4, 7-3 ACC), who held just two wins against North Carolina in the past 16 years. UNC nearly stormed back from a 16-point deficit on Tuesday behind superb performances from Joel Berry and Cameron Johnson, who collectively scored the final 29 points for North Carolina. But Clemson's 15th three-pointer — tied for the most allowed by UNC this season — broke a late tie and left the Tar Heels with more questions than answers.

A late shot by Cam Johnson (13) was blocked by Clemson to seal Tuesday's loss, sending the Tar Heels to a .500 record in conference play with eight games left. | Photo by Smith Hardy

A late shot by Cam Johnson (13) was blocked by Clemson to seal Tuesday's loss, sending the Tar Heels to a .500 record in conference play with eight games left. | Photo by Smith Hardy

Roy Williams doesn't have any solutions for his team's horrid three-point defense, and he said as much after the loss. Before the game, he called this team's defense one of the worst — if not the worst — that he's ever coached. It starts with the interior, where 6-foot-8 Luke Maye just isn't enough of a defensive deterrent, but it spills to the perimeter, where teams are gashing the Tar Heels without mercy.

Yet Williams has also called this team one of the best shooting teams he's ever led. And therein lies the enigma with this year's bunch.

North Carolina shot a respectable 45.2 percent on Tuesday despite a quiet game from Maye — a legitimate ACC Player of the Year candidate — and two minutes from starter Theo Pinson, who left the game early with a left shoulder strain. Berry, while inconsistent this season, is still an All-American and senior leader who's not yet 10 months removed from Most Outstanding Player honors. Johnson's career-high 32 points are emblematic of the player fans expected when he transferred from Pittsburgh.

These Tar Heels are shooting and makes threes at a higher clip than any previous team in the Roy Williams era. But they're allowing more than any team in program history, too. They have the offensive playmakers to spark a deep run, but the defensive deficiencies could spell an early exit.

Pinson's injury highlighted UNC's depth concerns, too. With Seventh Woods still injured and Jalek Felton's suspension coming from the University on Tuesday, Williams was forced to feed heavy minutes to freshmen Andrew Platek and Garrison Brooks and sophomore Brandon Robinson. The trio combined for three points, four assists and nine rebounds in 42 minutes.

A shorthanded roster for UNC means more minutes for players such as Andrew Platek (3), who went scoreless in 15 minutes on Tuesday. | Photo by Smith Hardy

A shorthanded roster for UNC means more minutes for players such as Andrew Platek (3), who went scoreless in 15 minutes on Tuesday. | Photo by Smith Hardy

Williams said Pinson's injury didn't appear serious, which is crucial news for a team essentially without a backup point guard. But there's no determined timetable for the other players' return, meaning a wealth of minutes for an already shaky lineup. With tough tests ahead, is this team at risk of a major collapse?

Let's slow down for a second.

Here are two equally important facts: This team isn't getting a No. 1 seed. It isn't missing the tournament, either. This year's team can be competent — dangerous, even — without following the path of its title-winning predecessor.

This season, North Carolina's resume is impressive, if not a little inconsistent. Entering Tuesday, the Tar Heels had the fourth-hardest strength of schedule and boasted the 11th-best RPI ranking despite six losses, the most of any team in the RPI top 20.

The Wofford loss is inexcusable, without question, and the Virginia Tech loss likely won't age well. But the other five losses? Two top-five teams, another top-20 team and two teams receiving votes for the top 25.

And the wins? No. 17 Ohio State, at No. 18 Tennessee, No. 20 Clemson and No. 24 Michigan — all likely tournament teams.

This year has been tough for Joel Berry (2) and the Tar Heels. But there's no harm in enjoying an inconsistent season after a championship run. | Photo by Smith Hardy

This year has been tough for Joel Berry (2) and the Tar Heels. But there's no harm in enjoying an inconsistent season after a championship run. | Photo by Smith Hardy

This season has barely passed the eye test, and that's rightfully concerning for the Tar Heel faithful. There are real holes with this team, starting on the defensive side of the ball, and any more hits to the roster could seriously upset the rotation.

But the resume suggests a battle-tested team with the ability to beat top-caliber opponents. Come March, that's what matters most.

You know those fun teams in the tournament every year, led by experience and torrid shooting and wildly inconsistent defensive effort? That's your team now. Accept it, love it, embrace it, because North Carolina will be a trendy pick in brackets nationwide just two short months from now.

Will the Tar Heels snag a top-four seed? Probably not, unless they can steal a game from Duke or make a run in the ACC Tournament. But they'll likely outperform their seed no matter what it is, if only because half of the roster has fresh memories of a rigorous title run.

So enjoy it. Enjoy this team's record shooting nights and infuriating perimeter defense. Enjoy Berry's fluctuating percentages and Pinson's cross-court passes and Kenny Williams' first-half/second-half splits. Don't let the nostalgia of winning a championship spoil the joy of watching an exciting but flawed team forge its own path.

It's better than storming the court for a top-25 win.

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Smith Hardy