CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Ed Davis walks to class wearing headphones like a shield against the negative vibe hanging over the North Carolina campus. Teammate Deon Thompson goes one better, rarely venturing out into public any more than he has to these days.
"I just try to stay out of sight," the senior said. "It's just tough to be around people when you're losing."
That's never supposed to be a problem at a storied program that boasts five NCAA championships, 18 Final Fours and nearly 2,000 total victories. Yet when the defending champion Tar Heels host rival Duke on Wednesday night, they'll be in a position few could have imagined: unranked, near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference and hurtling toward the NIT.
North Carolina (13-10, 2-6 ACC) has lost seven of nine games since the start of 2010 after earning a No. 6 preseason ranking and entering the year as ACC co-favorites with the eighth-ranked Blue Devils (19-4, 7-2). In the past month, the Tar Heels have twice set the record for their worst loss under Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams, lost their past two home games by double figures to unranked opponents and trailed by at least 19 points in five games.
Things have gotten so bad that Thompson joked that he's ordering delivery food under an assumed name.
"Like coach said," he said, "how much worse can it get, you know?"
Yes, it's a different team from the one that rolled through last year's NCAA tournament, with Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green now in the NBA. Still, with Thompson, Davis and Marcus Ginyard returning to guide one of the nation's top recruiting classes, the Tar Heels figured to at least give chase in the ACC.
Things looked OK after early wins against Ohio State and Michigan State, but no longer. Now Williams is reduced to coaching effort and concentration as much as Xs and Os for a young team with shaken confidence.
"At times, I feel we are getting better and at other times, I see us regress," said Williams, who hasn't hid his frustration in his postgame comments in recent weeks. "The consistency of that has been difficult to handle. The bottom line is the results and you've got to keep trying. And you know the reason you've got to keep trying? Because it's the right thing to do."
The struggles haven't gone unnoticed over in Durham.
"My reaction to that is what's going on?" Duke junior Nolan Smith said. "Because when I look at them, I know some of their players and I know they're a very talented team. There are guys who are probably going to be lottery picks. It's just very surprising to me."
While the Blue Devils talk respectfully of their rivals, they privately have to be eager to face the Tar Heels after losing six of the past seven meetings. That will be particularly true on Wednesday night, when the Tar Heels retire the No. 50 jersey of Hansbrough — who graduated as the program's all-time scoring and rebounding leader to go with a 4-0 record at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium — during halftime.
But Hansbrough's presence will also be a reminder of what's missing in Chapel Hill. Whereas Hansbrough, Lawson and Ellington each hit last-second winning shots in the previous two seasons, this year's group seemingly has no one ready or able to take that burden yet.
The 6-foot-9 Thompson leads the team at 14 points per game, but is more of a complementary player. The versatile Ginyard returned for a fifth year after missing most of last season after foot surgery, but an ankle injury in January hindered what was already a limited offensive skill set.
Davis, a 6-10 sophomore who returned after many projected him as a possible NBA lottery pick, is averaging about 14 points and 10 rebounds. But like Thompson, Davis has often disappeared during games as the Tar Heels' thin perimeter — their most glaring weakness from the start — struggles to get the ball inside against pressure.
Much of the attention there fell on sophomore point guard Larry Drew II, who inherited Lawson's job and got off to a strong start before fading during the slide. Meanwhile, junior Will Graves has been streaky as the team's only real outside shooting threat.
Injuries haven't helped, either. The Tar Heels are currently without Tyler Zeller, a skilled 7-footer sidelined with a stress fracture in his right foot. Williams said Tuesday that Zeller has been cleared for some light running, but it's still unclear when he'll return.
As for the freshmen, top recruit John Henson often looked lost after starting the year as a small forward, Dexter Strickland has also been up and down at both guard spots, and twins David and Travis Wear have given the Tar Heels serviceable minutes, but not steady production.
Williams has repeatedly said it's his job to get the team playing better. But ultimately, Ginyard said, the players have to pull the Tar Heels out of this nosedive.
"There's only a certain amount the coaching staff can do to try to change things up or try to get us to get the right things going on in our minds," he said.
"Things happen that you aren't expecting sometimes and we've just got to do a better job of dealing with it. I think a lot of times we're getting too caught up in worrying about how bad things seem to be going for us. Right now, it's time we start focusing on just trying to get better and trying to make this thing work."