Some prominent Tobacco Road streaks could go up in smoke as the distractions around Chapel Hill continue to pick up steam.
North Carolina (17-10, 8-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) will gear up for its most challenging stretch, traveling to Maryland tomorrow and to Duke the following Saturday. If they lose both, the Tar Heels most likely will finish below third in the ACC regular-season standings for the first time in 35 seasons and record the most losses in the program's history heading into the ACC tournament.
Though the Tar Heels have heated up, so have the questions and criticisms.
Where is point guard Ed Cota's attention fixed? Why doesn't center Brendan Haywood shoot more? Has the passive approach of 62-year-old coach Bill Guthridge rubbed off too much on the players?
Opponents have even sensed the difference and aren't afraid to say so.
Said Virginia swingman Adam Hall after Sunday's 90-76 victory at North Carolina: "They always play laid-back and they think they can win because they're Carolina."
Cota, who ranks fourth on the NCAA's all-time assist list, hasn't shown up offensively the past two games.
He has been sloppy with the ball, recording eight assists and 11 turnovers. He has failed to penetrate successfully, going to the foul line a total of four times. He has lost his shooting touch, missing 11 of 18 attempts from the field.
And it won't get any easier for Cota, who faces matchups against Maryland's Steve Blake and Duke's Jason Williams, two freshmen who are playing better than the Carolina four-year starter.
Cota's focus may instead be on an impending court date. Cota and teammate Terrence Newby, Carolina's media guide cover boys this season, were scheduled to go on trial yesterday. University of North Carolina police have charged them with three counts each of assault inflicting serious injury and two counts of simple assault that stemmed from a Halloween brawl.
The court date had been postponed indefinitely because prosecutor Jim Woodall is tied up with a superior court trial.
No one in the Carolina program has commented recently on the charges, but Guthridge has never wavered in his support of Cota.
"I'm a big Ed Cota fan," Guthridge said. "I wouldn't trade him for any other point guard in the country."
Then there's the biggest magic trick in Chapel Hill: How can you make a 7-foot, 264-pound center disappear? Tar Heels fans would answer: Watch Haywood.
He leads the nation in field-goal percentage (.744), a whisper behind the NCAA record of .746 which was set by Oregon State's Steve Johnson in 1980-81. Yet Haywood, who has only missed 49 of 192 attempts, takes an average of just seven shots a game.
In Sunday's loss to Virginia, Haywood was shut out in the second half and took just one shot. Three days later, he had two first-half attempts at Florida State before making all five of his shots from the field after halftime in a 70-67 victory. Still, Haywood managed only 11 touches in the post against the Seminoles.
"If you figure out a way to get him the ball more, let me know," Guthridge said. "We try to get the ball to him and he does have a lot of people around him. But that's one of the things we like to do."
Carolina has climbed back up the standings by racking up all four of its wins this month against the ACC's lower tier and could pull itself into a tie for second place with a win at Cole Field House tomorrow. The Tar Heels, though, have to prove they can compete with the league's upper division, mustering a 1-3 record vs. Duke, Maryland and Virginia.
Florida State "was a big win, especially after a home loss," Cota said. "We definitely didn't want to lose and go into Cole Field House on a losing streak."
Some say Carolina has become too casual defensively. The Tar Heels haven't forced more turnovers than they've committed in 23 of 27 games.
The Tar Heels seem to apply more pressure on themselves at home, where they are 6-5, tying the school record for losses in Chapel Hill in a season. If Carolina isn't on the top of its game this week, other long-standing marks could be in jeopardy as well.
But upholding streaks isn't the main incentive for Guthridge. The third-year coach is more concerned with gaining his first victory at Cole and ending a four-game skid to the Blue Devils. Removing their head-to-head games, Maryland and Duke are a combined 25-0 at home this season.
"We don't talk about [streaks] with the team," Guthridge said. "I think it's something all of us connected with Carolina basketball are proud of, but certainly each team is different. And I don't want to burden our players with that."
Streaking to end?
North Carolina (17-10, 8-5), which is tied for third in the Atlantic Coast Conference, has put several impressive streaks in jeopardy this season.
An NCAA-record 29 consecutive seasons with at least 21 wins.
An ACC-best 35 seasons in a row of finishing no lower than third in the regular-season standings.
Never more than 11 losses heading into an ACC tournament.
An ACC-record 35 straight seasons with no more than seven losses in an ACC regular season.
Never seeded lower than eighth in a NCAA tournament.