North Carolina Tar Heels Hubert Davis during a game in Chapel Hill. Jan 7, 2023; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis reacts against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the first half at Dean E. Smith Center. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina should be grateful that it’s been a weird year in the Atlantic Coast Conference. While the Tar Heels (13-6, 5-3) have been one of the most disappointing teams in the country, there’s still time for them to salvage their season.

This is not how it was supposed to be. Coming off a run to the 2022 National Championship Game, North Carolina entered 2022-23 as the preseason No. 1 in both the Associated Press writers poll and the USA TODAY Sports coaches poll. The Tar Heels are loaded, led by returning preseason All-Americans Armando Bacot and Caleb Love.

But so far, nothing has gone according to plan. They became the first preseason No.1 to lose four games in a row. For a while, some wondered if they might suffer the embarrassment of not making the 2023 NCAA Tournament.

The latest prediction from ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has North Carolina as a No. 8 seed. And advanced metrics guru Ken Pomeroy ranks the Tar Heels No. 26 overall.

It hasn’t been a bad year in the ACC, but there doesn’t appear to be a great team either. Clemson (15-4, 7-1) had been the lone unbeaten in conference play until it lost at Wake Forest earlier in the week. Every other school has at least two losses. There are only three ACC teams ranked (Virginia, Clemson, and Miami). So, as bad as things have been in Chapel Hill, there’s still a chance for a turnaround.

Can they flip the switch for the second straight season? After some stumbles, the Tar Heels have won eight of 10 games, and two of their next three are at home. They might not face another significant test until Feb. 4 with the trip to Duke (13-5, 4-3), which is dealing with its own issues under rookie coach Jon Scheyer.

What’s wrong with North Carolina? The simple answer is that it can’t shoot. The Tar Heels are hitting at 32.04 percent from three-point range, which ranks No. 273 in Division I. Love, who shot 36 percent from behind the arc last season, is at 27.1. Against Louisville last Saturday, he missed all seven of his long-distance tries. Against Boston College on Tuesday, he was 2-for-10. North Carolina won both games, but in the NCAA Tournament, poor outside shooting can lead to early exits.

Second-year Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis was a terrific shooter when he played for North Carolina in the 1990s. He has talked with Love and noticed something.

“When he was shooting the last couple days, I said to me, it just seemed a smidge flat, just a little bit,” Davis said, according to USA Today. “So I think about getting a little bit more arc there. I told him about the importance of continuing to shoot and continuing to shoot good shots. Then I told him about making impact plays in different areas. When I struggled to shoot the ball, I thought more about, let me get some extra rebounds, let me make some more hustle plays.”

The Tar Heels’ biggest strength remains Bacot. The 6-foot-10 forward has fought through injuries, averaging a career-high 17.6 points and hauling down 11.2 rebounds. He’s tied for fourth in the nation with 11 double-doubles. Bacot is a huge reason why North Carolina was the preseason favorite to win it all. He could have left early for the NBA but, thanks to name, image, and likeness opportunities decided to return.

At this time last year, North Carolina was 12-6, 4-3. The Tar Heels won 11 of their final 13 to close out the regular season tied for second in the ACC. And after being stunned in the conference tournament by Virginia Tech, they regrouped to make it to the NCAA title game as a No. 8 seed.

North Carolina has the talent to do it again. Let’s see if the Tar Heels have the fortitude.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.