CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- There was little concern around these parts last month when the North Carolina basketball team lost its Atlantic Coast Conference season opener on its home court to Florida State. A bad day at the office, most surmised.
But more than a few folks here are worried about their Tar Heels now.
North Carolina's stunning, 12-point loss to unranked and apparently underrated Notre Dame on Saturday in New York raised questions about a team many predicted would go back to the Final Four.
Among them: Is last season's freshman class, minus transfer Clifford Rozier, going through a collective sophomore slump? After having too many players last season to find a comfortable rotation, does coach Dean Smith not have enough this season? Are the Tar Heels, who recently went on a trip to the Canary Islands and Germany, worn out?
North Carolina (10-2, 1-1), which was ranked eighth last week, will try to figure out some of those problems when Maryland (7-6, 0-3) visits the Smith Center tonight at 7:30. The Terrapins have lost five straight, their longest losing streak under coach Gary Williams.
"We're struggling," Smith said yesterday afternoon before practice. "Any time you lose, you're concerned. I did think Notre Dame played very well. I didn't like our execution offensively. For the most part, we played well defensively, but we had about 10 individual breakdowns. We're an inexperienced team, and it shows."
Senior guard Hubert Davis continues to amaze, and junior forward George Lynch continues to improve, but sophomore center Eric Montross continues to confound. He has become a 7-foot-1 enigma, dominant one moment, dormant the next.
"There's some pressure this season, but mostly it's just produced by myself," Montross said recently in an interview with Carolina Blue, a local newspaper devoted to the Tar Heels. "I know that the team needs me to produce more. Last year, it was the crowd expectations and the media expectations. This year, it's diminished a lot, which makes me feel more comfortable."
Said Smith: "He fortunately doesn't have those expectations, and neither do I. I think he's going to be an excellent college center."
Eventually, the Tar Heels are expected to grow into the team that many expected to be Duke's only serious challenge in the ACC this season. But the loss to Florida State -- the Seminoles played without star Douglas Edwards that day -- showed that Smith might not have been far off in assessing his team before the season.
"I don't think we're a top-10 team," said Smith. "I don't know if we're a top-25 team. I only hope that we're an NCAA tournament team."
With as many as three sophomores in the starting lineup -- aside from Montross, point guard Derrick Phelps and forward Brian Reese have started most of the season for the Tar Heels -- this is Smith's youngest team in his 31 seasons at North Carolina. That inexperience was in evidence against the Irish.
"We didn't show very good poise in the second half [against Notre Dame]," Smith said Saturday. "And we might have taken them lightly, since they are supposed to be down this year. We can't afford to take anybody lightly."
Maryland could provide the panacea for what ails North Carolina. Though the Terps improved offensively from their previous four games in Saturday night's 94-88 loss at North Carolina State, they don't have the size or depth to match up with the Tar Heels.
The North Carolina players were a solemn bunch yesterday. They went through a lengthy tape session, with as much time spent reviewing what had gone wrong in New York as what they hoped would go right tonight. Then they quietly went back to work on the practice court, hoping to avoid another bad day at the office.
"I hope we're focused," said Smith. "But I hope we don't have to lose to be focused."
Davis said: "This was definitely a setback. The fortunate thing is that we have a conference game (tonight) against Maryland. We don't have time to mope."