Panic button on standby for Heels

It’s legitimate to start wondering if North Carolina will make the NCAA tournament. Just having the best wins in nonconference play doesn’t really matter now -- but could ultimately factor into the equation.

The Season That Shall Not Be Mentioned by North Carolina fans just earned a comparison to what’s currently taking place in Chapel Hill.

The Tar Heels fell to 1-4 in ACC play with their 15-point loss at Virginia on Monday. Carolina hasn’t started so slow in league play since going 8-20 in 2001-02. (That season is conveniently blocked out as if it never happened and remains the program’s only losing season since Dean Smith’s first year as head coach in 1961-62, when he went 8-9.)

But even at its lowest, UNC still beat Clemson at home. The Tigers venture into the Dean Smith Center on Sunday carrying the albatross of 56 consecutive losses without a win in Chapel Hill.

That’s why although this team is teetering very close to panic mode -- i.e. not making the NCAA tournament -- it’s not the time to implode just yet.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Heels as a No. 9 seed and trending downward in last week’s Bracketology projection -- and that was with an 0-3 start in the ACC. I believe if Carolina breaks even in the ACC, it would still get in the NCAA tournament based on the strength of its marquee nonconference wins over Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky.

Clemson is the first step to marching toward .500 with three of the next four games at home, and the Tar Heels could be favored in all of them. And they certainly could use the confidence boost that would come from winning consecutive games.

After Clemson, UNC goes to Georgia Tech then gets NC State and Maryland at home. Those are all winnable games. By no means can the Heels take anything for granted, though, considering Wake Forest and Miami also were viewed as winnable games.

“It’s not just effort -- our kids are trying -- but it’s got to be a greater sense of urgency and alertness,” coach Roy Williams said after the Virginia game.

Among the many perplexing questions about this team is that their win at then-No. 1 Michigan State remains their only road win. It also remains the Spartans' lone home loss, and in their four home games since they have won by an average of 24.7 points.

Things could end up like the Son of The Season That Shall Not Be Mentioned in 2009-10, when the Heels, ranked in the Top 10 early in the season, ended up in the NIT. Or there is still a chance to be like the 1999-2000 team that underachieved during the regular season only to get the right matchups in the NCAA tournament and advance to the Final Four.

“We’ve taken advantage of things in the past and we’re not right now at this point taking advantage of mistakes when other people make them as well as we need to do it,” Williams said. “It’s very frustrating, to say the least, but it’s college basketball.”