CHAPEL HILL/SMITH CENTER Minutes after Wake Forest defeated North Carolina 82-69 on Wednesday night to drop the Tar Heels to 1-3 in the ACC and 12-7 overall, a colleague on press row posed the following question:

”If Carolina basketball were going to play tug-of-war against political progressives, whom would Vegas make the favorite?”

That the answer to this question took a couple minutes to ponder reveals a sorry state of affairs for both the Tar Heels and American liberals, and in the case of the basketball team, hope may be a full season away.

Unlike previous ACC losses, when Carolina got drubbed from the outset, the Heels battled ferociously early and were within three points at halftime. But Wake’s scorching second half shooting the Deacs shot 7-for-8 on three attempts in the second half enabled them to open up a comfortable double-digit lead that they never surrendered.

Carolina’s leading rebounder and best overall player, Ed Davis, missed the game with an ankle injury. With both Davis and Tyler Zeller (who’s out for several more weeks) sidelined, Carolina no longer has the advantage of interior scoring against most opponents. For that reason, too many offensive possessions resulted in uncertain passing around the perimeter leading to a jump shot that Wake was happy for the Heels to take.

Everyone has a theory on what’s wrong. Some boil it down to point guard play and others note the lack of wing athleticism and scoring, while some look at the injuries suffered by several players this season and still more finger the absence of a banger in the post.

And then there’s the confidence issue. The body language of the players on the court and on the bench indicates frustration, and that goes for Roy Williams as well. Williams seems to be moving past the anger stage in his procession through the various stages of grief, his attitude morphing from rage to bewilderment.

But back to those root causes. Anytime I argue that this year’s Tar Heels lack impressive ACC-level talent, folks immediately counter that this same team did beat highly ranked Michigan State early in the season.

True, I say, but consider what happened against MSU: Larry Drew played perhaps his best game of the season; the wing shooters hit 4-for-6 on threes; a healthy Marcus Ginyard (who clearly is not the same physically as he was in early December) had nine points and seven assists along with playing tough defense; and Ed Davis triumphed over the Spartans’ touted front court with 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting.

The point isn’t that Carolina lacks the capability to play well, only that the margin of error is very slim. The team enters each game with the shortcomings listed above, and most if not all of those problem areas have to clear up in a given contest in order for the Heels to win. And while that’s possible, the probabilities are low.

Thus, consistency from this team probably is asking too much. Winning many ACC road games appears to be a stretch, as does defeating any legitimate top-15 club, even at home.

Roy Williams may decide to experiment with his offense or defense from this point forward to mask his team’s deficiencies, but the most significant improvement the team can make is mental. If the Heels re-discover their preseason confidence, they at least can hold steady and not fall prey to the extended turbulent stretches that have felled them in recent outings.

But even that may be asking too much. With blood in the water, the Heels get a few days off and next will travel to Raleigh to face the emboldened Wolfpack, fresh off their victory over Duke.

To view the UNC/Wake Forest box score, click here.