Home to Kentucky, 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4; nationally broadcast on CBS. The Wildcats have begun to dominate recruiting and they boast a star-studded freshman class. Kentucky hasn’t performed well in Chapel Hill recently, however, and Carolina needs to handle such a young team—albeit a very athletic one—on its home floor.

For decades, top-notch basketball has been a birthright for students, alumni and fans of the Tar Heels. Seemingly since time immemorial, the University of North Carolina has greeted fans each season with a powerful, ambitious team. That’s certainly held true during the Roy Williams era, during which the Tar Heels have won two national championships in his first seven seasons on campus.

But last season was different. Something changed, and most ominously, no one seemed to understand what or why. Just a year removed from its most recent national title, Carolina suffered through the worst season of Roy Williams’ career, deteriorating at midseason and ultimately falling short of an NCAA Tournament berth.

Was it a fluke? Most observers were happy to dismiss last season’s problems as a one-off scenario, an aberration due to injuries and a watershed loss of talentTyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson et al. from the previous national championship season. This year, fans reasonably expected the Heelsranked No. 8 in the preseasonto be vastly improved. Indeed, Carolina welcomed an influx of considerable talent for the 2010–11 campaign. Harrison Barnes was so highly regarded out of high school that sportswriters preposterously selected him as a preseason All-American, while the club’s other two freshmenKendall Marshall and Reggie Bullockalso were considered elite prep prospects. Moreover, senior transfer Justin Knox is able to provide both experience and strength in the absence of the twins David and Travis Wear, who surprisingly, and perhaps portentously, transferred to UCLA at the conclusion of last season.

Three key sophomores who struggled last year, John Henson, Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald, return stronger and bolstered by the added year of experience. Seven-foot junior Tyler Zeller, hamstrung during his first two seasons by injuries, appears poised for a breakout year. In sum, this Carolina team may not have the pieces to compete nationally, but certainly a return to the NCAA Tournament should be a given.

Shouldn’t it?

The early returns haven’t been encouraging. Despite having more firepower on hand, UNC limped out of the gate by losing to its first two high-major opponents, Minnesota and Vanderbilt. Worse, players still wore those confused, even fearful looks. Williams himself seemed downright disgusted by his team’s play, even when he’d had a few minutes to cool off before addressing the media following each game.

For basic morale purposes as well as recruiting, UNC can’t afford another heavily publicized disaster. The Tar Heels play so many games on national television that they aren’t able to hide, and trashing a prestigious program makes for good copy. It’s scandalous for Carolina to be bad.

If these first few weeks have forced a painful recalibrating of expectations among the Tar Heel faithful, there are some reasons for cautious optimism. Barnes began slowly but did connect on close to 40 percent of his three-point attempts through the early games. Zeller emerged as a quality low-post scorer, and sophomore John Henson is one of the nation’s most gifted rebounders and shot-blockers. Marshall is a supremely talented passer and playmaker while Bullock may be the squad’s best pure shooter. On Sunday, the team pulled together for a 74-69 win over the College of Charleston.

This week, the Tar Heels have an opportunity to wash away the angst with a pair of nonconference showdowns. By the end of this weekend they’ll have played both Illinois and Kentucky, nationally ranked teams that to this point have demonstrated greater physical prowess than UNC. Winning at least one of those two games appears imperative to stave off a fresh round of media bludgeoning.

By the time you read this, the Illinois result will be known, but this Saturday’s nationally televised tilt against Kentucky in the Dean E. Smith Center looms as the most important of all the nonconference matchups. Later this month, the non-ACC slate also includes a Dec. 18 faceoff against Texas in Greensboro, so the Heels should be fully battle-tested when the conference schedule tips off in January.

The season’s narrative might include the contemporary state of Roy Williams as well. Last year, questions emerged about the Hall of Fame coach’s health, particularly related to his ongoing battle with vertigo and his frequently tortured and emotional remarks to the media. Even if Williams puts concerns about his personal vigor to rest, continuing struggles on the court could erode his image of coaching infallibility. Doubters have asserted that Williams’ uptempo approach is ill-suited for his current team, and clearly those critical voices will rise in pitch if the Tar Heels fail to improve substantially. It seems wildly inappropriate to second-guess his abilities, given his exceptional career. But two years of underachievement is a long time in Chapel Hill, and in the absence of more concrete answers, every aspect of the program will, and must, come under scrutinyfrom the media, boosters, fans and future high school prospects.

Even if this isn’t a vintage Carolina group, there’s enough ability inhabiting the roster to make a charge toward the top of the ACC and at least be competitive head-to-head against Duke. But that’s not a given, and we can expect changes to be made in an effort to alter this season’s trajectory. The most pressing concern for the coaching staff is managing personnel. UNC is in a difficult spot at several positions due to freshmen outperforming more experienced players, especially at point guard. Junior Larry Drew II hasn’t been able to command respect from defenses and thus far has been an inferior offensive player to Marshall.

But if Williams opts to make a switch, might the demotion cause him to lose Drew mentally? On the other hand, if Drew over Marshall causes the Tar Heels to drop games, the entire team’s mind-set will be damaged. This is in effect a two-year decision, and Carolina has taken a very conservativearguably too conservativeapproach.

Another change we’re likely to see in the starting lineup is Bullock moving into sophomore Dexter Strickland’s spot in the backcourt. Like Drew, Strickland has endured severe shooting difficulties and essentially is treated as a nonfactor by the defense when he’s camped behind the three-point stripe. Bullock brings more dynamic scoring ability and is several inches taller. In recent comments to the media, Williams has discussed the possibility of that particular change happening soon.

If Carolina does end up starting the three freshmen and inevitably takes lumps due to their inexperience, the sophomore class will have to be considered a major disappointment. But if the freshmen don’t play and the team continues to struggle, that will lead to even worse and more frightening proclamations.

But no pressure, guys.