Over the past three weeks, it had become increasingly evident that North Carolina’s basketball team had stopped defending at the championship level. Many assumed that the Tar Heels simply were playing down to the competition and perhaps struggling due to limited practice time, and the expectation was that they’d recapture form in time for the ACC schedule.

Boston College proved all that false on Sunday evening in Chapel Hill. Riding the exploits of guard Tyrese Rice (25 points) and wing Rakim Sanders (22 points), the Eagles shredded UNC’s defense and soared above the mighty Tar Heels to hand them their first loss of the season 85-78.

It was uncharacteristic game both on an individual and a team level. Likely All-Americans Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson suffered through relatively poor games, while the club as a whole had a terrible time hitting free throws and three-pointers.

All that aside, it’s team defense that is the No. 1 concern heading into the meat of the season. Last year’s team had great difficulty defending against dribble penetration, and this year’s team again faces that question. The Eagles looked quicker and sharper athletically, continually putting UNC’s defense in a state of desperation and confusion.

BC also brought a lot of heat to the offensive glass, particularly in the first half. As a result, the Tar Heels’ vaunted running game was neutralized. In all, the Eagles out-shot the Heels 46 percent to 38 percent for the game.

Roy Williams summed it up succinctly after the loss: “We have to be tougher, mentally and physically, but we had some opportunities.”

Of course, unlike college football, a mid-season loss for a basketball team essentially is meaningless in terms of legacy. With the exception of those unrealistic fans who believed that this Carolina crew could advance through the season undefeated, nothing has changed since the loss to BC.

The issue here is not what happened on Sunday but what the BC loss may portend for the NCAA Tournament. It’s certainly too early to worry that UNC’s anticipated No. 1 seed is in jeopardy, but what happens when the Heels battle a very talented club that can neutralize Roy Williams’ preferred uptempo style in the later rounds? Could there by another Kansas scenario from last year’s disastrous Final Four appearance?

It’s too early to say. It will be too early to say a month from now. However, meaning can be extracted from even these January games, and over the next two weeks the Heels will be tested by teams that have a blueprint at their disposal for confounding the Carolina attack.

In the immediate term, the Heels will travel to top-10 Wake Forest next Sunday and face a more pressured situation than was anticipated. Carolina figures to roll past Charleston on Wednesday, but Wake is another very fast team and will be playing on their home floor. An 0-2 start in ACC play would put UNC’s ACC regular season title hopes at serious risk.

But don’t let the inevitable media jabbing fool you. National champion Kansas lost three games during the course of last season, and triumphant Florida dropped five games the year before.

From a more positive perspective, the Heels finally do face the urgency some fans worried they wouldn’t encounter prior to March, and they’ll have the opportunity over the next several games to demonstrate their championship mettle.

To see the box score from the BC game, click here.