North Carolina passmaster Ed Cota was experiencing deja vu as he sat in the locker room at Virginia's University Hall this past Tuesday night, answering the sky-is-falling questions from the media.
Cota remembered being a freshman on the 1996-97 Tar Heel team that lost its first three ACC games. He was there the night then-coach Dean Smith said Carolina had improved despite losing that third game. Cota was also there when that Carolina team regrouped to win 19 of the next 21 games to reach the Final Four, where the Tar Heels lost to Arizona.
But three years later, the questions seemed more justified as the Heels had just fallen to 11-7 overall and 2-2 in the ACC. The last time the Tar Heels were 11-7 overall -- as they were after their 87-85 loss Tuesday at Virginia -- Smith was hung in effigy that 1965 season by restless UNC fans.
The Tar Heels are 2-2 in the ACC, losers of three straight and are looking like a team that could be headed out of the Associated Press top 25 poll for the first time since 1990.
"The only thing you can do is just keep working hard in practice," Cota said. "Losing three in a row is not a good sign for our team. But I hope we can get things straightened out."
Unlike in the first two games of the losing streak -- losses to Wake Forest (66-57) and UCLA (71-68) -- the Tar Heels appeared to play with more desire and more consistent effort against Virginia.
But, as was the case in last year's first-round NCAA tourney flameout against Weber State and has been the case most of the season, Carolina had no answer for defending an athletic forward -- which isn't good news with Florida State's Ron Hale and Maryland's Terence Morris on the immediate horizon.
On Tuesday, Virginia's Chris Williams scored 24 points, including six in a 13-4 second-half run that allowed the Cavaliers to take control of the game. After Williams scored in the paint with 13:18 to play, Virginia led 55-53, and the Wahoos wouldn't trail again.
"We've got to try to stick together and try to play through it," Carolina forward Jason Capel said. "We've got to believe it can get better and keep working. We have to take the positive out of it. We played hard, we played together and it's just a shame we came out with a loss."
Carolina now has lost at least three consecutive games for only the sixth time since 1966. The last time Carolina had as many as seven losses before the end of January was when the 1964-65 team opened the season with an 8-8 record.
"We're not quitting," said UNC center Brendan Haywood, who scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. "There are only two ways we can go. We can go up, or we can go down. We're going to go up."
In order to improve, the Heels must get more touches for the 7-foot junior Haywood, who is shooting 73.2 percent from the floor (tops in the country), but averages less than seven attempts per game. He's taller than everyone else is on the court, he has a brilliant passer in Cota at point guard and he has an outside sharpshooter in freshman Joseph Forte (averaging 16.3 points a game) to extend defenses. What's the problem?
Cota has heard that criticism before. But he also realizes that improvement isn't going to come overnight and that it's going to require more than bold talk for a team that is now 3-5 since Dec. 21.
"We still have to improve in a lot of areas," Cota said. "We've got to rebound better, we've got to take better care of the ball, and we must chase after every loose ball. We've just got to get better."
Speaking his mind
On this past Monday's Atlantic 10 Conference coaches teleconference, Chaney was asked what he thought of the latest initiative from the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) to have the 2002 NCAA South Regional removed from Greenville, S.C., if the state government doesn't stop flying the confederate flag above the statehouse.
In a recent letter to the NCAA powers-that-be, NABC head Jim Haney pointed out that having an NCAA Tournament game in a city that flies a confederate flag in this day and age -- when 60 percent of all NCAA scholarship athletes are African-American -- is wrong. While Chaney applauds Haney's action, he doubts if it will do any good.
"They (the NCAA) won't have the guts to pull the regional out of Greenville," said Chaney. "I hope they do, but I don't think the NCAA will. Because the best place to hurt a racist is in the pocketbook.
"It reminds me of a story about when Jackie Robinson was on a busload of players traveling through the south. While they were filling the bus' 60-gallon gas tank at a gas station, Jackie went inside and tried to buy 20, 30 or 40 sandwiches for all the players on the team. The owner of the roadside store said, 'Nigger, what are you doing in here? I'm not going to sell you any sandwiches whether you come in the front door or the back door.' And they argued about it a little bit, until Jackie shouted back outside to the guy filling the bus to take the gas pump out of the tank. Once the store owner realized all the money he was losing in the gas sale, he let Jackie Robinson have the sandwiches. Like I said, the best thing is to hit a racist with is in the pocketbook.
"When that governor (of South Carolina) sees for his racist-ass self that they (the NCAA) really will pull out, then maybe these things will change."
And they have a right to worry. Last year, the ACC was second behind the Big Ten in the RPI, and only Duke, Maryland and North Carolina received NCAA tournament bids.
So Tobacco Road continued to be Spin City this week, as coaches were forced to explain the state of the ACC, which was the top-rated league from 1996 to 1998.
"Last year, we got three teams in. So if we're ranked fifth, that means we're not going to get anyone in?" Krzyzewski said. "No, we'll probably get eight in then. So I don't know how much significance that means. If you have a couple of power teams, that increases your RPI. It's not necessarily how you're looked upon by the selection committee.
"I think our conference is very competitive up and down, and as a result, maybe it's a lower RPI. But I think we probably should have more teams in the NCAA as a result of that competitiveness."
Actually, the low RPI probably stems from the ACC's mark against other power conferences. The ACC has losing records against the Atlantic 10 (1-4), Big 12 (0-1), Conference USA (2-4), Southeastern Conference (5-7) and Pacific-10 (4-5). The league has lost six of its past seven non-conference games against ranked opponents, with its only win coming from Maryland's victory over Kentucky. Clemson has weighted down the ACC from the start, falling to Wofford, Wisconsin-Green Bay, South Carolina State and Appalachian State.
"I feel bad because I would never want to lower the conference in terms of the disappointing year that we're having," Shyatt said. "We may be responsible for some of that."
Cremins, however, said that the NCAA selection committee should concentrate at the other end of the ACC and not penalize league teams for having to play Duke twice. The Blue Devils are the only ACC team in the RPI's top 21.
"What has really surprised me is how the strength of Duke's program has hurt the rest of the ACC," Cremins said. "I thought when you have a team that is so powerful in your conference that it would help your conference rating.
"I think all of us (coaches) are a little surprised by everyone saying that they had three good teams last year and the rest of the teams are garbage. If Duke was in any other conference, they would be doing the same thing to the other teams."
Robert Swain, a muscular 6-foot-4, 200-pound shooting guard at Tri-Cities High near Atlanta, has narrowed his list of colleges to Duke, Auburn, Southern Methodist and Rutgers. Duke and Auburn are believed to be the leaders, although Tri-Cities coach Elgin Andrews said the four schools are close.
Bob Gibbons, a recruiting analyst, said: "When you see Swain and you follow Duke, you think of David Henderson, Billy King, Robert Brickey and Chris Carrawell. Swain is one of those players that defies a position. He is just a player who helps you win."
Duke saw Swain last summer when he played for the Atlanta Celtics club team and scouted him again in November. The Blue Devils offered a scholarship after seeing him in the Peach State Classic last week, Andrews said.
"He really comes off screens and shoots well," Andrews said of Swain, who is currently averaging 30 ppg. "Plus, he is so strong that we can post him up inside some."
Duke also is a finalist for 6-8 prep All-American power forward Travon Bryant of Long Beach (Calif.) Long Beach. Last fall, Bryant said his final schools were Missouri, California, Kansas and Kentucky, but he recently added the Blue Devils, Arizona and Michigan.
And that's not all. Duke is working hard on the cream of the high school Class of 2001, too. The Blue Devils are already on the short lists of the best center (6-11, 255-pound junior Desagna Diop of Oak Hill Academy), best power forward (6-9, 225-pound junior Jack Martinez of Artesia (Calif.) High School) and best small forward (6-7 junior James White from the Newport School in Kensington, Md., the same school that produced current Cincinnati star DerMarr Johnson).
More recruiting buzz
Tossing his cookies
The home crowd was hurling cookies at the Temple coach and the bench throughout the second half. Finally, Chaney erupted. He picked up a cookie, and hurled it to the ground. Seconds after he was hit with the "T."
Chaney is never the happiest camper on the sideline, but at least he kept his sense of humor over the incident, which resulted in a league reprimand for St. Bonaventure.
"Where did they think I got (the cookies)?" Chaney asked. "They must have thought I was baking at halftime."
Bill Doherty, a freelance writer from Bethlehem, Pa., is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.