EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The North Carolina Tar Heels could win the national title.
Or they could lose the first round of the NIT.
At this point, both seem equally plausible.
And a month into the season, Roy Williams’ group has proven itself not as consistent, not as hard-nosed, not as untalented, but as the most confusing team in all of college basketball.
In the last three weeks the Tar Heels have picked up big wins over No. 3 Louisville and No. 1 Michigan State. But they’ve also suffered losses to Belmont and UAB.
“I’ll make this short,” Williams said following his team’s 79-65 win on the road over the top-ranked Spartans. “I don’t know. I don’t know. And I don’t know.”
And he doesn’t.
How does a coach possibly put the same players, same plan, same drill on the floor and achieve such variant results?
How does a coach conduct two press conference just three days apart when he has to try and explain a win over the top dog and a loss to a nobody but can’t find the words for either?
How does a coach not become confused with that?
Williams certainly is. And who could blame him?
This has been a whirlwind. And the games, just like his players’ play, have been hard to keep track of, hard to diagnose when it goes bad (and it has gone very, very bad) and hard to sustain when it has been good (and it was very, very good against Michigan State).
Midway through the press conference, a UNC media relations employee corrected Williams on the date of a specific practice he had referenced.
For a moment Williams just stood there and looked at him. Then he looked at the media and leaned forward.
“I have no idea what freaking day it is,” Williams responded. “Does that mean today is Wednesday?”
Yes, it was Wednesday. Yes, his team had just beaten the nation’s best. And yes, the UAB/Belmont nightmare was still true.
This team’s identity is that it has no identity. At least not yet. But maybe after this game they have something to build on.
So the questions from the media remained simple, but the answers stayed true.
Did he know any more about his team after this game than he did two days or two weeks ago?
“Who knows?” he said.
Has he ever been a part of a team with this high of highs and this low of lows?
“I have no idea,” Williams said. “I have no idea. … I’d hate to think it has been worse than this.”
“It’s hard to explain,” sophomore Marcus Paige added. “It’s highs and lows so far for us. We beat a top five team, lose, beat another. It’s just, it’s crazy. … Hopefully we can try to understand that consistency is going to pay off.”
Perhaps the only consistent thing about this all was that Williams won. He’s 7-0 against Izzo now and it was the 13th time a UNC team had taken down a top-ranked opponent.
But the truth of the matter is that this inconsistency is what Williams can expect with youth. His team doesn’t even travel a single senior and at times against Izzo’s Spartans the oldest Tar Heel on the floor was a sophomore.
Williams’ leading scorer was a freshman. His leading rebounder was a sophomore. His best inside presence matching up with preseason All-Big Ten post player was, you guessed it, a freshman. A sophomore tallied the most assists. That same sophomore played the most minutes. In fact, 77 percent of the minutes were divided among Williams’ freshmen and sophomores.
And this, matching up with Tom Izzo’s arsenal of experience in Adreian Payne and fellow senior Keith Appling and junior Travis Trice and sophomore All-Big Ten preseason Player of the Year Gary Harris.
“Experience definitely helps combat some of the highs and lows, guys that have been through it before,” Paige said. “This is a great way for us to keep learning that showing what we’re capable of and how good of a year we can have if we stay together and have collective effort.”
But even with that youth, the Tar Heels have shown that when they do stay together, when they have a collective effort, they can play with almost anyone in the country.
And they’ve shown that when they don’t have that, they can lose to almost anyone in the country.
“I think we have to learn that, that every night we have to have the same intensity,” Nate Britt said. “I feel like those are the reasons why we took that loss to UAB, why we took that loss to Belmont, just because we didn’t come out ready to play.”
But against the Spartans, they certainly were ready to play.
The Tar Heels had five players score in double figures and found ways to stave off a possible MSU resurgence every time the Spartans began to try and find life.
North Carolina came into its game as a nine-point underdog and left with a 14-point win.
It’s what makes this game so electrifying.
It’s what makes these games worth playing.
It’s what makes Williams so confused.
“You can’t tell in college basketball what’s going to happen,” Williams said.
Really, that might be the only thing Williams can tell about this team right now.