The Tar Heels (14-5) are 4-1 in conference play for the first time since the ’07-08 season and join No. 3 Duke and No. 22 Florida State as the only ACC teams with fewer than three conference losses. But following North Carolina’s 14-point come-from-behind victory at Miami on Wednesday, it’s hard not to question exactly how this team is 4-1.
Even Roy Williams has played along in addressing the unsightly road at each stop along the way.
The Tar Heels opened their ACC slate by overcoming an 11-point second-half deficit at Virginia despite missing 26 of their final 34 field goal attempts, prompting the eighth-year head coach to say, “It was one of the ugliest ‘W’s’ that I’ve ever been involved with.”
Five days later, UNC rallied to defeat Virginia Tech after trailing early by 16 points, and Williams delivered this gem in his postgame press conference: “You're supposedly only going to age one year in one year's calendar’s time, but between Saturday's game and tonight's game I aged three or four years.”
Williams then termed his club’s 20-point debacle at Georgia Tech as a “butt-kicking” before telling reporters on Wednesday that saying the team felt fortunate in rallying from a 14-point deficit against Miami to claim victory “would be an understatement.”
The only ACC postgame press conference that ended without a sharp quip from Williams was the 10-point victory over Clemson, but Tigers fans will tell anyone that listens that there’s some sort of unspoken voodoo involved that prevents UNC from tanking against their team, anyway.
The numbers don’t lie – UNC ranks 10th in scoring offense (66.6), seventh in scoring margin (plus-0.4), 11th in field goal percentage (40.2), 12th in 3-point field goal percentage (26.3), 10th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (39.8) and ninth in assist-to-turnover ratio (0.9) in ACC play.
But yet North Carolina stands two games clear in the loss column of fourth place in the ACC.
Williams points to inexperience as part of the problem for UNC’s inconsistent play this season, citing 12 departed players over the past two years and three new starters into the rotation.
“It’s not like we’re a veteran team,” Williams said on Friday. “… Right now, we’re not experienced, for sure, and we’re not at the level that I’m going to say we’re really good.”
The 2009-10 squad was equally as inexperienced once injuries set in, but that group of Tar Heels never displayed the intestinal fortitude required to overcome double-digit losses. The lone example occurred during the NIT run when Mississippi State built a 16-4 lead less than five minutes into the second-round contest.
North Carolina has already accomplished that feat three times in conference play, with another come-from-behind victory after trailing No. 14 Kentucky by eight points thrown in for good measure.
“I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” junior forward Tyler Zeller told reporters on Friday. “Just to be able to be composed enough to be able to come back from double-digit deficits. Obviously, we have a long way to go – we need to be able to avoid getting in double-digit deficits – but it’s one of those things that I’m just proud of everybody for being composed and focused enough to be able to come back and put ourselves in position to be able to make those last-second shots.”
For Williams, the reason behind that refusal to give in is one that doesn’t show up in the box score.
“The toughness – I really appreciate that,” Williams said. “I was almost giddy after the game the other night. I want the kids to see improvement, but I want them to see success, too. But to me, the toughness, the willingness to continue playing… Georgia Tech was hopefully something we don’t see very often, if ever again, but other than that, we’ve fought through some fairly tough times.”
On the flip side, of course, is this line of thinking: If North Carolina has struggled mightily in winning four out of five conference games, what’s going to happen if and when the boys in blue actually improve to the level of their coach’s liking?
“I don’t think we have played to our potential yet,” Strickland said. “We have great athletes on the team and we’ve just got to play like it every game. It’s consistency. And if everybody plays together, we won’t have to worry about anything.”
The Tar Heels have built their foundation on defense (42.1 field goal percentage defense, 4th ACC) and rebounding (plus-5.2 rebounding margin, 1st ACC).
The most pressing issue has undoubtedly been North Carolina’s inability to score consistently, but Saturday’s rivalry matchup could help in that regard.
During the Sidney Lowe era, N.C. State has allowed league opponents to shoot a blistering 46.4 percent (1,920-of-4,139) in 70 ACC contests. The Wolfpack currently ranks 12th in the conference in field goal percentage defense (47.1). That ineptitude could be the spark that ignites North Carolina’s play.
“I keep telling them, ‘One of these nights we’re going to play great,’” Williams said.
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, March Madness is still six weeks away. The benefit of winning ugly is that it provides more time to learn how to win in a more favorable light.