The front line looked imposing. The veteran leadership was there. And with an infusion of young talent, North Carolina entered the season looking ready to defend its national championship.
More than halfway through the season, that squad is nowhere to be seen.
The Tar Heels (12-7, 1-3 Atlantic coast Conference) have lost three straight games for the first time under Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams and matched their loss total of the previous two seasons combined. Picked as co-favorites in the league along with rival Duke, the Tar Heels are sitting near the bottom of the standings and have the look of a team that would just settle for a win right now.
The frustration is evident, from the players' stunned looks during consecutive home losses to Georgia Tech and Wake Forest to Williams' comments after each game.
"I don't give a darn about what's going on," Williams said after Wednesday's 82-69 loss to the Demon Deacons. "I'm going to coach my rear end off tomorrow. It's up to them to come along with me, and that's the way it is.
"I'm going to ask them, 'Do you want to keep playing?' If they don't want to, we can figure out something for them to do. But we're going to keep playing."
There is no quick, easy explanation for why the Tar Heels are struggling like this. Some of the young players pressed into key roles have struggled with consistency and intensity, while others haven't developed at all. The returnees from the team that romped its way through last season's NCAA tournament haven't been able to make up for those struggles, either.
Then there are the injuries, which have only exacerbated those troubles. Fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard and junior Will Graves have missed recent games with sprained ankles, sophomore big man Ed Davis sat out the Wake Forest loss with his own ankle injury and 7-foot reserve Tyler Zeller could miss six weeks with a stress fracture in his right foot.
Along the way, North Carolina has lost to the elite (Kentucky, Texas) and the unranked (College of Charleston). The Tar Heels even suffered their worst loss under Williams (19 points at Clemson), then fell behind by 20 in the first half against the Yellow Jackets days later.
"It's very frustrating losing games that we shouldn't lose," freshman Travis Wear said. "It's kind of mind-boggling at this point that you've lost three (ACC) games and you're North Carolina."
It's still early and the Tar Heels have time to regroup, but the storied program ranked sixth in the preseason could be at risk of missing the NCAAs completely if things don't change soon.
"It's what young teams tend to go through, but it's really unusual for any North Carolina team," said Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN and a former Duke player. "In a way, it's kind of a reminder of the extraordinary success they've had there. North Carolina is not going to go through this very often when it's normal for other programs."
Perhaps some of these struggles should have been expected considering what the Tar Heels lost from the team that hoisted the trophy in Detroit. Four-year star Tyler Hansbrough graduated as the storied program's career scoring and rebounding leader, while juniors Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington each jumped to the NBA. In addition, perimeter scoring threat Danny Green and valuable reserve Bobby Frasor also graduated.
Still, North Carolina's cupboard didn't look as bare as it did when it lost the top seven scorers from its 2005 title winner. Starting forward Deon Thompson was back along with Ginyard, who missed most of last season but started every game in the Final Four run of 2008. In addition, Davis returned despite being a possible NBA lottery pick along with Zeller to give the Tar Heels one of the nation's top frontcourts.
All that was needed was for sophomore Larry Drew II to grow into the point guard role run so perfectly by Lawson, and for guys such as top recruit John Henson or freshman guard Dexter Strickland to develop into reliable contributors. Drew has been serviceable so far, but Henson has struggled with seven points in the past five games while the other rookies have had their ups and downs.
Williams has said his team has to play smarter to win in the ACC. Its next game is Tuesday at rival North Carolina State, which upset of 7th-ranked Duke on Wednesday night. That starts a five-game stretch in which three are on the road _ where North Carolina is 0-3 this year _ and one is at home against the Blue Devils.
The Tar Heels close with four of six on the road, ending with a trip to Duke.
"We've just got to continue to work and continue to fight," Thompson said. "That's all you can do. You can't give in just because you lose a couple of games. The storm doesn't last forever."
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary contributed to this report.
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