UNC benchwarmers prepare to enter a game during garbage time last season.

What’s the matter with UNC? That’s the leading question of the week. Duke and N.C. State didn’t make much news this week, so we’re all Tar Heels today.

To recap: The men’s and women’s basketball teams contrived to lose two games Sunday and Monday by an aggregate margin of 84 points. Not good for two teams with an aggregate record of 28-8.

Mike Potter tells us that the women have been battling injuries, and too much shouldn’t be read into the 86-35 drubbing they received Monday in Storrs, Conn. at the hands of the nearly unbeatable Connecticut Huskies.

But what’s the men’s excuse? Roy Williams’ crisis-management skills ended up dominating the discussion after an inexplicable 90-57 defeat to the Florida State Seminoles.

The men (16-3) get back on their horse tonight in Blacksburg, Va. in a tilt versus the Virginia Techsters that will be nationally televised at 9 p.m. on ESPN. Four hours before that, on the same campus, the Tar Heel women (12-5) will try to end their three-game losing streak.

Our writers weigh in below… but first, some links to essential sports reading from the week, for those of you who need non-video sports diversions in your workplace:

Does playing sports build character? Mark Edmundson thinks so—with some caveats.

Sports are many things, and one of those things is an imitation of heroic culture. They mimic the martial world; they fabricate the condition of war. (Boxing doesn’t fabricate war; it is war, and, to my mind, not a sport. As Joyce Carol Oates says, you play football, baseball, and basketball, but no one “plays” boxing.)
This fabrication is in many ways a good thing, necessary to the health of a society. For it seems to me that Plato is right: The desire for glory is part of almost everyone’s spirit. Plato called this desire thymos and associated its ascendancy and celebration with Homer. A major objective of his great work, The Republic, is to show how for a civilization truly to thrive, it must find a way to make the drive for glory subordinate to reason.

You probably know that American soccer fans cringe whenever their treasured sport is called boring! But Grantland soccer writer Brian Phillips says hell yeah, that’s part of what we love about it.

In sports, pure chaos is boring. Soccer gives players more chaos to contend with than any other major sport. So there’s something uniquely thrilling about the moments when they manage to impose their own order on it.

Mark Titus, a former Ohio State scrub cager (as opposed to cage scrubber), is doing good work as one of Grantland’s college basketball writers. His writing is funny, knowledgeable and provocative. He did a good dissection of UNC’s poor defensive work some weeks ago, and he really has it in for Duke’s Austin Rivers (whom he calls “Austin Rivers’ Punchable Face,” or “ARPF,” which he writes is “pronounced like a seal’s bark“).

As long as those two teams are in the upper echelon of college b-ball, they’re sure to get plenty of coverage in his weekly “Mark Titus’ Top 12” column.

UNC’s 86-35 loss at No. 3 Connecticut on Monday night was certainly painful and, since it was the worst margin of defeat and lowest score in school history, maybe even a bit embarrassing.

But it wasn’t entirely out of context, and doesn’t necessarily mean the No. 24 Tar Heels (12-5, 2-2 ACC) were undeserving of their national ranking.

While the Huskies were playing in front of a sold-out house at home and firing on all cylinders, Sylvia Hatchell’s club has been in disarray all season long for generally no fault of its own.

The Tar Heels began the season with 13 players on the roster, with Tierra Ruffin-Pratt still on the mend from shoulder surgery and 6-6 center Waltiea Rolle still recovering from the birth of her daughter on Nov. 8.

While Ruffin-Pratt has been a major contributor since her return, Rolle has not yet approached her fitness level from last season. UNC has lost freshman wing Megan Buckland and sophomore guard Latifah Coleman for the season to ACL injuries, and Laura Broomfield—who is fully capable of averaging a double-double—has been hampered greatly by both foot and eye injuries.

Only five Tar Heels have been able to go for every game. Chay Shegog has turned into the type of center who should go high in the WNBA draft, Krista Gross is showing she’s a complete player with great leadership potential and freshman guard Brittany Rountree looks like a career 1,000-point scorer. But when the Tar Heels aren’t healthy, things are tough.

They’ll be at least slight favorites in each of their next five games before visiting Duke Feb. 6, and if they don’t falter Thursday at Virginia Tech and can manage to win the toughest in the stretch—at resurgent N.C. State on Sunday—they should keep their Top 25 spot.

But if they play badly for the next couple of weeks, the last seven games are a killer run and their spot in the NCAA Tournament—with the first two games at home—could go into jeopardy.

Meanwhile things are going pretty much as expected at Duke and State: The No. 5 Blue Devils (14-2, 5-0 through Tuesday) still have a chance to play themselves into a 1-seed for the NCAA Tournament and an assignment to the Raleigh Regional. But there are seven or eight games where Duke could lose with a slip-up, and all eyes are going to be on Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 30 when Connecticut comes calling. That’s the first time the Huskies will face off with Duke’s freshman center and leading scorer Elizabeth Williams.

Kellie Harper’s Wolfpack (12-6, 2-3) is deeper this season, and can compete with just about anybody if Marissa Kastanek, Bonae Holston and Kody Burke are all at the top of their games on the same night. The remaining schedule isn’t exactly a dozen cupcakes, but the only remaining ranked opponent on the road is UNC on Feb. 19. State needs four wins to guarantee post-season play and eight to absolutely assure an NCAA bid. —Mike Potter

With respect to Tallahasseegate, I can’t imagine that Krzyzewski would ever, ever, ever in a million years allow the situation to unroll as it did. The picture of him walking off the court, leaving some of his players out there like sacrificial offerings, is simply impossible for me to summon. (A Duke backer would probably argue that Krzyzewski would never allow a team of his to get beaten that badly in the first place, but that’s cant.)

The issue, for me, isn’t about what Roy knew or didn’t know—he insisted later that he thought the game had actually been prematurely ended with 14.2 seconds to play; a preposterous claim, even if it happens to be true —or whether he should or shouldn’t have taken his players off the court in order to protect them. (Personally, I thought that was overreaction, even though a female team manager had apparently been knocked down in the postgame hullaballoo at Las Vegas.)

Instead, the event illustrates what kind of teaching a coach chooses to do in such a moment. I recall Duke’s horrific loss at Clemson about three years ago, 74-47. With a minute left to play in the blowout, Krzyzewski called timeout, gathered his players around him, and told them to listen to the roaring crowd at Littlejohn. He wanted them to get a full sense of just how badly they had played, and to bookmark the moment so that they wouldn’t forget it. It’s often out of that kind of humiliation that a better basketball team is made. (The Clemson fans stormed the court, by the way; no one was hurt.)

Williams’s choice to take his players off the court—whether he thought the game was over or not—indicates to me that he had simply given up, and lacked the wherewithal not only to rise to the moment (i.e. by making sure he knew exactly what was happening, and perhaps even controlling it to some degree) but also to do something useful with it. He slunk away, embarrassed, and thus gave Tarheeliana the green light to do the same. (Check out Indy-and-Triangle Offense contributor Thad Williamson’s shell-shocked plaints on Inside Carolina, for example). He failed to lead not just the order of events, but the orchestra of voices afterwards. And then, of course, he made matters worse with head-cocking explanations, so that Kirschner had to clean up the mess.

Quite frankly, I’ve always enjoyed Roy’s unpredictability and his occasional misfires: cussing on live radio and national TV; dressing down fans who have irked him; barely piloting a pre-season top-10 team, one year after winning the NCAA championship, to the emergency landing of the NIT. In their own way, his bizarre hiccups remind me that these are amateur athletics. Duke, under Krzyzewski, seems far more corporate to me—even though it almost certainly isn’t in some of the most fundamental ways, i.e. the ones that involve money. But note that it’s Krzyzewski who coaches the USA Basketball team of multi-millionaires, something I cannot for the life of me picture Williams doing. Attempt to visualize Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James listening to him. —Adam Sobsey

My initial reaction to Williams exiting the court was that the game must have been ruled finished. I definitely support the idea of clearing the court or stopping games early when fans encroach and security is unable to fend them off. The UNLV game definitely aroused alarm within the program, and you can see in this clip a downed Kentucky player nearly trampled after the Indiana buzzer beater earlier this season.

Mike Krzyzewski sent his players to the locker room early at Clemson after fans rushed the court prematurely, but as I recall he remained out there with the five still on the court. The head coach carries the responsibility of protecting players, and negligence — and that’s assuming you find Williams’ explanation plausible — is no excuse.

The Carolina fan base also would be bothered by his behavior more than most others. The notion of player equality, irrespective of purely basketball importance to the team, became a core belief during the Dean Smith era. That’s one reason Smith insisted on maintaining a junior varsity program (which endures today) even after freshmen were ruled eligible for varsity competition. Given that Roy Williams once coached the JV team, his walk-on walkout looks particularly suspect. —Rob Harrington