What’s wrong with North Carolina men's basketball – and can Tar Heels fix it after Duke loss?

North Carolina basketball players are saying the right things after losses, but the Tar Heels are running out of time to show they’re capable of implementing those changes on the court.

Coming off a 63-57 defeat at Duke on Saturday, UNC (15-8, 7-5 ACC) is closer to missing the NCAA Tournament than making a return trip to the Final Four.

With two more losses, the Tar Heels would match their total from last season. They next play Tuesday at Wake Forest (7 p.m., ESPN).

"We gotta look at the bigger picture," said Armando Bacot, UNC’s leading scorer and rebounder. "We lost this game (to Duke), but we still got goals we’re trying to reach this season. Not going for them is just a disservice to our team."

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North Carolina Tar Heels guard Caleb Love (2) defends Duke Blue Devils guard Tyrese Proctor (5) during the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 4, 2023 in Durham, North Carolina.
North Carolina Tar Heels guard Caleb Love (2) defends Duke Blue Devils guard Tyrese Proctor (5) during the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 4, 2023 in Durham, North Carolina.

In 2022, UNC lost by 20 to Duke in their 23rd game of the season to fall to 16-7. The Heels went 13-3 the rest of the way, capped by a run to the national championship game.

Four starters who keyed that turnaround are back – including Bacot and Caleb Love – which makes this season’s continued struggles even more of a mystery.

So, what's wrong with the Tar Heels?

Well, some of their biggest issues were magnified against their biggest rival.

"Really just making those plays at the end. We’ve got a veteran group, so we should really know how to execute at the end," Bacot said. "The last two games, I think it just really came down to the end, just not making plays. We’ve been in a lot of games like that this year."

In the loss to Iowa State in Portland, UNC led by seven with just under four minutes left. In their quadruple overtime loss against Alabama two days later, the Heels had a six-point lead with just under four minutes remaining in the third overtime.

In its two-point loss at Pitt on Dec. 30, UNC had the lead and the ball with under a minute left but couldn’t close. And against the Blue Devils, the Heels tied the score 57-57 before going scoreless in the final four minutes.

Bacot didn’t get a shot in the final 12 minutes against Duke. Outside of him, consistency has been hard to find for UNC’s key returners as second-year coach Hubert Davis continues to lean primarily on his starters.

"It’s just all about execution, just finding those few plays that work down the stretch,” Love said.

"For us to be better in those situations, I feel like we just gotta run it with more pace and have more purpose as far as setting screens. I just feel like it’s the little things. Once we do that, everything will change."

Pace has been a problem for UNC, which ranks 106th in adjusted tempo, according to Normally known for their efficiency in transition, the Tar Heels haven’t been rated this low since being 110th in 2003, Matt Doherty’s final season as head coach.

Duke had a 20-2 advantage against UNC in fast-break points on Saturday.

"I feel like we gotta push it more with the pass instead of the dribble – and we’re taught that in practice," Love said.

"We do it in practice, but we’ve got to translate it into the game, as far as pushing it up, setting a drag screen, getting (Bacot) down low in the post. We’ve just got to run."

The area in which UNC’s offense has thrived has been in its ability to get to the free-throw line. The Tar Heels are 23rd in free throw rate, their best mark since finishing 20th in the 2005 national championship season.

But in Saturday’s loss at Duke, UNC tied for the program’s fewest free throw attempts (3) in the ACC era and remained on track to post its second-worst 3-point shooting mark (30.8%) in a season. Carolina attempted 54 shots from long range against Pitt and Duke in its last two games, making 12.

Love, who is struggling at 28% from beyond the arc, said he has to "be better as far as my decision making, especially down the stretch."

"I gotta be better with my shot selection as far as just not settling on the 3 because there’s nothing there," Love continued. "I gotta get downhill. When I do get downhill, if I have two or three people on me, I gotta kick the ball out and make the right play. I gotta start playing off two (feet) more, as well. I’ll just watch the film and I’ll definitely be better."

Davis continued to hammer home the importance of matching effort with execution.

"For us this year, consistently it's been the discipline and the details, the little things, a box out, a defensive assignment, execution on the offensive end that has been up and down in late game situations," Davis said.

"And once we get better and more consistent at that I think it'll be a happier locker room than a sad locker room."

Now, the Tar Heels just have to turn their words into actions before it’s too late.

Follow Rodd Baxley: @RoddBaxley on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: What’s wrong with North Carolina men's basketball after loss to Duke?