A couple of years ago Carolina beating a Northeast Conference team by fifty points would have been considered a snoozer, but there was much to like about the Tar Heels' victory Sunday afternoon. First, everyone on the team played well. Second, the team played hard. Third, the team had fun.
Sounds simple, right? Not necessarily. There has been a cloud hanging over the Carolina program for most of the past calendar year, ever since a fadeaway 25-footer found the net this time last year in Charleston, S.C.
Of late, however, the current team has been building needed momentum heading into conference play -- the performance against St. Francis just put an exclamation point on it. While there is still much uncertainty about this team, there is a lot to like too.
In particular, Carolina can go ten deep, and everyone in the rotation is making contributions. That depth will wear down opponents, especially since there is literally no drop-off between the starting five and the next unit. Indeed, the "second string" -- and those quotes are ironic since apart from Zeller (clearly the best player) and Watts (the tenth man) I put all the remaining players on essentially the same plane -- is more explosive offensively than the first. Right now a good pattern is being established of the starters setting the right tone defensively and getting the ball into Zeller early, followed often by a mini-spurt when Marshall, McDonald et al come into the game.
Further, this is a team that has clearly gotten better since Puerto Rico, with several individual players finding their offensive groove in recent games. Probably most significant is the sudden emergence of Leslie McDonald as a major offensive threat and dangerous three-point shooter.
Still, all the positives count for little if Carolina can't replicate them in ACC play. How will the Tar Heels fare now that the "real" season is here?
Consider some evidence. If you look at the four games Carolina lost -- Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Illinois and Texas -- those teams going into Sunday's games had an average Sagarin Rating of 85.7 and an average ranking of 28.5. (Each point of the Sagarin rating is equivalent to a one-point difference in the predicted outcome of a given game.)
In contrast if you look at the bottom ten teams in the ACC -- leaving out Duke and UNC (currently rated second in the league, 32nd nationally) -- the average Sagarin rating going into Sunday was 79.1, with an average ranking of 88. Leaving out bottom feeders Wake Forest, the other nine teams had an average rating of 80.4 and an average ranking of 70.
What does all that mean? In one sense, not much. Predictions are just predictions, and even if you think you have good model that shows that if you played the ACC season out 10,000 times, UNC would win an average of 10.4 games, that doesn't tell you how any particular season will go. Moreover, a one-number indicator of a team's strength tells you nothing about how any two particular teams might match up. Finally, the numbers underlying the model itself are unstable and will change as more and more games are played.
Nonetheless, the numbers do suggest three things. First, there are at least 14 games on the regular season schedule Carolina has a very good chance to win. Duke will be tough, but otherwise Carolina has no reason to fear anyone. Second, it's extremely difficult to predict how any particular game is going to go -- apart from Duke and Wake, the middle ten teams looked to be bunched fairly close together.
Third, and following from the first two observations, the most probable outcome is that Carolina is going to win a few and lose a few in ACC play. There will be impressive wins, and there will almost certainly be setbacks.
What's important is assuring those setbacks don't multiply upon themselves and set a bad snowball in motion that no one can control, as happened in 2010.
Here's where attitude comes in. Let's distinguish between three kinds of sunny outlooks. The first is optimism -- the firm belief that things will go well. The second is hope -- the belief, despite contrary evidence, that things might or could go well. When the UNC football team had to start from its own 20 yard line with no timeouts and 31 seconds to go in the Music City Bowl last week, hope would have been an appropriate outlook, but certainly not optimism.
The third kind of outlook I will call "relentless positivity," following the lead of Jim Thompson's excellent book "Positive Coaching." Relentless positivity is not an optimistic belief that things will go well, nor does it involve denying or ignoring bad things that happen. Rather, it is a determination to stay positive, even though one knows already some bad things are going to happen.
Consider the following paradox: how does one acquire wisdom? By experience. But how does one acquire experience? Often, by acting foolishly and paying the consequences.
So it is with basketball teams as well, especially young players who are not finished products.
For instance, everyone agrees that "mental toughness" is a vital attribute for good players and successful teams, a core aspect of what John Wooden called "competitive greatness."
But how does one acquire mental toughness? By being placed in difficult, stressful situations and learning to embrace rather than avoid the challenge. You can be mentally tough and still lose the game. But being mentally tough makes you harder to beat, because you don't collapse as easily when facing pressure -- including not just the pressure applied by one's opponent, but the problems one causes one's self by making mistakes. That's the main reason to be unconcerned about the four losses on Carolina's record -- not just because they came against decent teams, but because I think this group of players has learned and grown from those experiences.
Nonetheless, as the ACC season starts, this North Carolina team is certainly at a crossroads. Because of what happened in 2010, because of UNC's tradition, because Carolina has a Hall-of-Fame coach and numerous highly-rated recruits, expectations are high, as they should be. But despite recent positive signs, a lot of people remain unconvinced about how good or how successful this group of players can be over this year and the next.
There are a lot of factors that will shape the answer to that question, but the two factors these players have most control over are first, effort, and second, mindset and self-belief, not just as individuals but collectively. Effort and mindset are of course closely related. To flourish, Carolina's players are going to have to shut out not only negativity coming from outside (media, fans) but any internal doubts as well.
There weren't many of those visible on Sunday, but make no mistake, the self-belief of this team is going to be challenged in the weeks ahead, possibly very soon. My cautious expectation at this point is that Carolina is going to be really, really tough, maybe even excellent, at home, but things will generally be quite a bit dicier on the road.
Saturday at Virginia will prove a worthy test, and a game with big implications for how the next month plays out. Carolina's players showed Sunday that they know how to enjoy a big home win. Let's see if next weekend they can find out how fun it is to win in a tough environment against a capable conference rival.
Thad is returning to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game: ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.