Before storming back into the national title picture last winter by winning 14 of its final 16 games entering the NCAA tournament, North Carolina endured a humbling 20-point loss at Georgia Tech that served as a turning point for its season.
The Tar Heels can only hope Saturday's stunning 90-57 wipeout at Florida State has the same impact.
As bad as that loss to Georgia Tech was, this one is far more humiliating simply because of the championship-or-bust burden North Carolina carries this season. The Tar Heels began as the preseason No. 1 team in the nation after returning the core of last year's Elite Eight team, yet there wasn't one facet of their performance on Saturday worthy of a national title contender.
They turned the ball over a season-high 22 times, dished out a mere eight assists and shot 4 of 21 from three-point range. They also allowed the notoriously offensively inept Seminoles to shoot 48.4 percent from the field, a performance highlighted by a career high 32 points from Deividas Dulkys on 12 of 14 shooting and 8-for-10 from behind the arc.
Most alarming of all for North Carolina, however, was the way it lost its poise and displayed questionable effort after Florida State opened the second half on a 22-4 spurt to turn an eight-point half-time lead into a rout. Any hope of a comeback had vanished long before Leonard Hamilton and Roy Williams mutually agreed to have the Tar Heels walk to their locker room with 14.2 seconds left in the game, shaking hands with Florida State's coaches in front of their bench along the way.
The lingering question the morning after the loss is whether it was an aberration or a sign that the Tar Heels (15-3, 2-1) have more holes than previously thought. It's never wise to make sweeping generalizations based on a single game, but it's certainly rare to see a supposed elite team lose by 33 points.
The most points any of the previous nine national championship teams have lost a game by was UConn's 17-point drubbing at the hands of St. John's last season. In Williams' previous two championship seasons at North Carolina, the 2004-05 Tar Heels never lost by more than 13 points and the 2008-09 team fell four times by a combined 16 points.
What was maybe most stunning about this loss was that there were few warning signs. Sure, Williams had complained sporadically that his team looked complacent in practice, but Florida State had underachieved badly before this game, falling to Princeton in non-league play, dropping its ACC opener by 20 against Clemson and failing to register a single marquee victory prior to Saturday.
For the Seminoles, perhaps this game will reinvigorate their season and give them the confidence to sink enough shots to complement their always-formidable defense. And for the Tar Heels, maybe it will serve as a wakeup call that they can't coast through the regular season and expect to win on talent alone.
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