The last time North Carolina started ACC play with three straight losses, the 1996-97 Tar Heels rebounded to finish third in the league, win the conference tournament and reach the Final Four.
Don't expect a similar turnaround this season.
A convincing 57-45 loss at second-ranked Syracuse dropped North Carolina to 10-6 overall and raises questions about whether the Tar Heels will even make the NCAA tournament at all. Though monumental victories over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky give North Carolina ample margin for error, the Tar Heels have frittered much of that away with their penchant for baffling losses.
Five of the six teams to defeat North Carolina this season are outside the top 60 in the RPI, a list that includes mid-major Belmont, middling UAB and rebuilding Miami, Texas and Wake Forest. Just to reach .500 in league play and give themselves reasonable hope of an NCAA bid, the Tar Heels will have to win nine games against a schedule that includes two games apiece against Duke, Notre Dame and NC State and single games at Florida State and Virginia and at home against Pittsburgh.
If North Carolina's history of alternating between huge wins and bizarre losses this season suggested Syracuse could be in jeopardy of its first loss on Saturday, everything else about the matchup screamed that the Orange would cruise at home.
North Carolina struggled to solve Miami's zone in a 63-57 loss earlier this week and entered Saturday's game shooting 31.5 percent from behind the arc. That's not exactly a winning formula against Syracuse's smothering two-three zone.
Sure enough, aside from a brief opening surge from James Michael-McAdoo and three garbage-time buckets in the final 90 seconds, the Tar Heels were woefully inept against the zone. They shot 2 of 12 from behind the arc, hit 3 of 9 from the foul line and didn't get enough clean looks in the paint, scoring only 23 points in the last 12 minutes of the first half and the first 18:40 of the second half. Even more discouraging, they looked listless once they fell behind and were routinely beaten on the glass or to loose balls.
The 45 points from North Carolina were the lowest of the Roy Williams era and the least the Tar Heels have scored since a 45-44 win over NC State in 1997. It enabled Syracuse to win easily despite a poor shooting night from Trevor Cooney (2 of 12 from behind the arc) and virtually no production from the center position.
North Carolina is neither talented enough nor consistent enough to get back into contention in the ACC, but the Tar Heels still have time to regroup and reach the NCAA tournament.
When a few outside shots fall, the wings are able to get out in transition and Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson are contributing in the post, North Carolina has proven it's capable of toppling some of the nation's top teams. But when the Tar Heels falter in those areas, they've also shown they can lose to anyone.