Well, you could use a lot of words, but a favored phrase of western North Carolinians of a certain generation is “pretty dadgum good.” Roy Williams took just enough heat to get him irritated along the way, but at the end of the day the fact is this Tar Heel team right now is playing as well, and is in as good a position going into the postseason, as anyone could have reasonably hoped at the start of the season.
Sunday afternoon’s game against Florida State had the makings of a scrap all over it. Carolina’s win in Tallahassee was tight, and the Tar Heels’ main virtue in the final quarter of the Clemson game Thursday night was being less bad than the host Tigers.
Instead, Carolina impressed a national network TV audience with an astonishing, highlight reel performance by James Michael McAdoo in the first half, well-complemented by solid performances from all four of the other starters. A 31-for-56 shooting performance with nine made three pointers—an effective field goal percentage of 63 percent—makes for attractive viewing whether you are a Carolina fan or just a fan of basketball.
When McAdoo is converting his opportunities and both Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston are shooting the ball well, this is a very tough Carolina team to cover. Yes, there are nits that can be picked about Sunday’s performance—for instance, Marcus Paige forced a couple of passes unnecessarily for turnovers, and team performance visibly dropped off when Carolina brought in multiple reserves. But the real question is whether Sunday was just the day everything went right—players hitting shots, a couple of fluke baskets off Seminole hands, Jackson Simmons going floor burn and coming up with the ball and a timeout—or instead a feasible template for how this team might play the rest of this month.
Certainly there will be nights Carolina will not shoot the ball as well and will still need to find a way to win. But it’s worth focusing on what has not happened since Williams re-shuffled the line-up. Carolina has not been significantly outrebounded, and (apart from the Virginia game) has not suffered defensively since making the change. The seeming upswing in on-court energy has offset the relative size deficit.
True, Carolina is -15 (2.5/game) on the boards over the past six games (the Duke loss plus the following five wins). But that fact must be counter-balanced with the fact that over the same six games Carolina is +38 (6.3/game) in the ‘turnovers created’ department.
In addition, Carolina has made eleven more three-pointers than its opponents over the past six games—while also going to the line 37 more times than opponents, including at least a small advantage in all six games. That’s a big departure from Carolina’s historic norm, in which the Tar Heels depended on inside and free throw domination to offset the fact the opponents routinely relied on three pointers for a much greater share of their offense.
Defensively, the last six opponents have shot an average of 44 percent from the field against Carolina, about in line with what Carolina conceded under the old lineup.
But that 44 percent figure is potentially misleading: first, the hot shooting of Virginia (58.5%) in Chapel Hill two weeks ago tilts the average up, and second, Carolina has done just fine against weaker opponents Georgia Tech, Clemson, and Florida State, holding all three schools to under 40 percent shooting.
In short, Carolina isn’t paying much of a price defensively for going small against the non-elite teams, but against the better teams it’s still a question mark. Both State (in Chapel Hill) and Duke shot between 44-45 percent from the field, indicating a potential weakness. On the other hand, Carolina had positive turnover differentials against both opponents, and also held each to a reasonable number of made threes (5 for State, 6 for Duke). Even so, if one reflects on Virginia’s hot shooting two weeks ago in the Smith Center, and again on Ryan Kelly’s incredible performance in his return for Duke this past weekend, who is to say the replenished Blue Devils couldn’t pull off a similar display next Saturday night in Chapel Hill?
The honest answer is that certainly could happen if Carolina doesn’t show that its ability to cover big guys shooting from the perimeter has improved since the Virginia game.
In the meantime, Carolina faces a very different kind of challenge on Wednesday, taking on Alex Len and Maryland in College Park in what looks like an ultimate trap game. Everyone understands Maryland badly needs this game to keep realistic NCAA hopes alive, and the Terrapin crowd will be even more hyped than usual by the thought that this is one of Carolina’s final visits to town. Having beaten Duke at home already just three weeks after losing by 20 in Cameron, there should be no lack of self-belief among the Terps that they can pull a similar reversal against UNC.
More importantly, Maryland has Len, and Carolina’s success in neutralizing Len in the first meeting owed much to Desmond Hubert. Roy Williams would seem to have three choices: play Hubert starter minutes to try to replicate what happened in Chapel Hill; play McAdoo straight up against Len and hope he stays out of foul trouble; or attempt some combination of the strategies and adjust as the game unfolds. Hubert, Simmons, and James all need to be prepared to play a somewhat bigger role than in recent games.
Indeed, it would be shocking if Carolina doesn’t find itself in the scrap Wednesday night that never quite materialized on Sunday. This is a good test for a revamped team attempting to get tournament tough.
It’s also a great opportunity to reinforce the winning habit. Carolina deservedly feels good about itself right now. The week ahead has the potential to leave the Tar Heels feeling even better (or quite a bit worse) heading into tournament play.
Thad 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 associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.