Tar Heels streaking in the wrong direction

North Carolina endured an emotional week with the death of program patriarch and legendary coach Dean Smith last Saturday.

Coach Roy Williams said that ever since he received the text message informing him of his mentor’s death, “my world has sort of been spinning in a different way than it normally does.”

At Friday’s news conference previewing Saturday's game at Pittsburgh, Williams made it a point to say his team wasn't looking for any sympathy.

That’s why it’s not an excuse for the Tar Heels’ 89-76 loss to the Panthers. North Carolina's slide after a 7-1 start in ACC play began well before they were beaten down in the Petersen Events Center.

Technically, their 8-4 record in the conference puts the Tar Heels (18-7) just one game in the loss column out of second place. But the way they're playing makes it seem far more distant. North Carolina has lost three of four games heading into Wednesday’s game at No. 4 Duke.

If the Heels thought their loss at Pitt was embarrassing, they should think about what will happen if things don’t change immediately. The last time Duke played at home at Cameron Indoor Stadium, it dismantled No. 10 Notre Dame by 30 points.

Williams sensed the need to jump-start his team even before a Feb. 7 victory at Boston College. He shook up the starting lineup, inserting guard Nate Britt and forward Isaiah Hicks for junior forward J.P. Tokoto and sophomore center Kennedy Meeks.

It proved to be the right touch against the Eagles. But it provided no lift against the Panthers (17-9, 6-6), who ran out to a 10-0 lead Saturday.

With the injuries that have piled up this season -- reserve senior center Desmond Hubert is the latest, with a torn anterior cruciate ligament -- Williams doesn’t have many options left if he believes another lineup change is a solution.

North Carolina’s problems during this regression have largely come in two areas: turnovers and defense.

The Heels had just four turnovers against the Panthers, which marked the fourth time in ACC play that they’ve been in single digits. However, they have just a 2-2 record in those games because their defense hasn’t held up.

Generally speaking, shooting 49 percent and scoring 76 points on the road should be enough to get the job done, but UNC allowed Pitt to shoot a season-best 64 percent from the field. The Panthers ranked last in the ACC in 3-point percentage at 30.1, yet the Heels allowed them to make 8 of 15 attempts from behind the arc.

And Duke is a far more efficient team offensively than Pitt. The Blue Devils rank fourth nationally in adjusted offense, according to Ken Pomeroy. The Panthers jumped from 36th to 21st on Saturday.

Tokoto has embodied the Heels' recent struggles. He hasn’t looked the same defensively since freshman reserve Theo Pinson went down with a broken foot at Wake Forest. As Tokoto's minutes went up immediately after Pinson’s injury, Tokoto's defensive resolve has seemingly decreased.

He was the primary defender on Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who scored 35 points against the Heels. He was the primary defender on Syracuse's Trevor Cooney, who scored 28 against the Heels.

Tokoto used to set the tone defensively for Carolina. What he did in making NC State’s Trevor Lacey ineffective in the first half of the Heels’ victory changed the outlook of that Jan. 14 game.

The Heels need that version of Tokoto to spearhead their defense. Otherwise, if they don’t regroup before the postseason starts, they’ll surely be headed for another quick exit in the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend for an unprecedented third straight season.