Paige has become more confident in recent weeks

In its most damaging loss yet this season, North Carolina fell to Miami 68-59 at home last night and dropped to 0-2 in ACC play. The game seesawed during the second half, but the Hurricanes drained a few timely three-pointers late to provide the winning margin.

The Tar Heels actually played reasonably well in this game, easily the greatest indictment one could levy given the result. Unlike the previous Virginia contest, in which UNC’s determination appeared to waver, UNC stood its ground defensively and largely worked hard to get good looks on offense.

But those shots didn’t fall, and eventually the defense cracked just enough for the ‘Canes to exploit the daylight.

Dexter Strickland’s box score line encapsulates the team’s inability to produce. The senior starter notched 26 minutes of playing time and not much else: no points, no rebounds, no assists, no steals and only one shot attempt. Strickland’s athletic slippage from previous form — he suffered a season-ending knee injury almost exactly at this time last season — has become undeniable, and he appears to be losing confidence.

Freshman Marcus Paige has begun to improve, but the Paige-Strickland backcourt continues to be an albatross. That said, the wing rotation also performed poorly versus Miami. The Hurricanes jammed shooters Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston, daring UNC’s big men to beat them inside.

With James Michael McAdoo slumping (14 points on 5-for-14 shooting) and Desmond Hubert a reluctant shooter at all, Miami’s approach carried little risk and great reward. Bullock and Hairston combined for 21 points on just 6-for-23 from the field.

This is a bad offensive team, playing in a system — Roy Williams’ preferred freelance offense, which prioritizes spontaneity but requires innate scoring talent — that, in my opinion, matches this team’s attributes poorly.

By national standards, Carolina enjoys above-average talent. And when the Heels play at home with sufficient effort and cohesiveness, as they did last night, you’d expect them to beat a pretty good, but not great ACC opponent. The fact that they puttered along so anemically indicates that something more structural is wrong.

Slowing the tempo slightly to enable Paige more time to read the defense might help. Utilizing more structure in the halfcourt setting — which Williams has begun to do — might create openings for jump shooters. As for McAdoo, he simply has to find a spot on the court where’s he comfortable. He’s forcing too many contested shots away from the rim, yet he’s not a proficient back-to-the-scorer or finisher in traffic.

Miami’s late shooting fooled many into believing the ‘Canes prevailed due to Carolina’s porous three-point defense, but they hit a very pedestrian 35 percent from deep. The interior core, which has been UNC’s headquarters every season Williams has coached in Chapel Hill, actually failed more substantially than the guards.

Here, no potential fix as availed itself. Even if Williams had not declared zone defenses verboten long ago, the team likely would become too vulnerable to three-point offense. Rebounding, another season-long problem, also may suffer.

But offensively, at least, Carolina simply must find a way to create better shots against quality opposition. The Heels do have talented athletes and have shot well when given room, and their progress on this front largely will determine the club’s trajectory from now through the spring.

Ultimately, whether this team actually possesses the potential to win two NCAA Tournament games offers the opportunity for even debate; whether it’s anywhere close to achieving its potential does not.

The Heels travel to Florida State on Saturday and will try to win their first ACC contest. Click here to view the UNC/Miami box score.