CHAPEL HILL — It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey, and on Friday night, North Carolina took one that revealed just how far the Tar Heels have to go if they hope to reach the first weekend in April.
Yes — the Tar Heels won, pulling away for a 77-61 victory over Gardner-Webb at the Smith Center.
That’s probably the best thing that can be said about a game that featured 35 fouls, 29 turnovers and a mess of wide-open shots, ill-advised passes and silly turnovers.
It was hard to tell afterward who was more upset with the performance —Roy Williams, or his players, who undoubtedly face a tough run of practice before returning to the court next week.
The coach was feisty, quipping back when asked what he was most displeased with.
“It’s a quick press conference, guys,” Williams said. “I mean, guys, seriously, we’re more gifted and we’re taller and all of those kinds of things and it’s a one- or two-possession game. None of you guys had to think it was a very pretty game and I don’t either.
“This is not a cut toward Gardner-Webb, but you think in the summer I was thinking, I hope we win this game? Come on, we’re trying to be the best team we can be.”
The Tar Heels (3-0) are a long way from that — the longest they’ve been at this point in a season since 2014, when by Dec. 1, they’d already dropped games to Belmont and UAB.
Right now, it’s hard to single out one area where things have fallen short for Carolina, which is essentially a brand-new team, featuring four newcomers in key roles and several other players getting used to expanded playing time.
Naturally, there’s some expectation that these things take time and that wins are still wins and everything is fine, especially given the injuries the Tar Heels have been dealing with.
But this is Chapel Hill, and while Williams’ teams certainly don’t hit their stride until February, things aren’t where they need to be.
Junior guard Andrew Platek acknowledged that the Tar Heels are progressing, but that doesn’t mean he has to like what he’s seeing.
“We’re figuring it out, but I’m going to take a lot of responsibility,” he said. “I’m a veteran and this is on me to carry this culture and the stuff I’ve learned over my two years.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel — I mean, we won the game — but I’m really disappointed in my effort and my team’s effort tonight and we just have to be better.”
The main issue right now is that Carolina isn’t playing its brand of basketball, as the offense has struggled to find rhythm, and when it has, it hasn’t been able to sustain the momentum for long.
“First and foremost, I think we’re not running enough,” forward Justin Pierce said. “We’re not getting enough easy baskets and that’s Carolina basketball, when you run on the fast break and kind of get inside, easy buckets.”
Carolina actually took a small step forward in that regard Friday with 22 fast-break points, as compared to a total of 23 in the wins over Notre Dame and UNC Wilmington.
Better, but not nearly good enough — especially on a night it took Carolina more than 10 minutes to crack double-figures scoring.
“Like scoring nine points in 10 minutes, that’s ridiculous,” Platek said. “That’s not North Carolina basketball; it’s just inexcusable the way we played in the first half.”
Shooting 50 percent in the second half didn’t put Williams in any better mood.
“Great,” he said, mockingly. “Guys, I used to think 60-65, but we’re shooting the worst percentage of any team I’ve ever coached.”
How about his freshman big man, Armando Bacot, going for 12 points and 11 rebounds?
“I thought he should have had 100; you cannot completely turn the ball over five or six times or lose it and sometimes get it back,” Williams said.
Christian Keeling showing signs of putting it together, with nine points and four rebounds after a slow start?
“Jesus Christ, son, he finally made a jump shot tonight,” Williams said. “That’s the first one I’ve seen.”
Finally, he admitted, not everything was awful on Friday.
“Do I believe we’re getting better? Yes,” he said. “Am I ticked off right now? Yes. Scrooge, probably this close to Christmas, yes. We’ve got to play better; that’s the bottom line.”
Like his coach, Platek found few positives in the victory and that’s precisely why there’s no major concern for these Tar Heels on this step of their young journey.
Rather than playing to reach a destination, they’re in search of a standard that has taken a few teams on quite the journey to the ultimate destination on the first Monday in April.
“We didn’t turn it on until the second half and I’m just very disappointed in myself first and foremost because I carry a lot of responsibility and I’m going to be the first guy to tell you this is where it has to change and I’m going to bring that energy to practice and everything we do,” Platek said. “I guess I’m the culture-carrier and I’ll take that responsibility on myself and instill the values that coach wants us to do, because we can’t get out to these slow starts.”