UNC (18-6, 9-4 ACC) has won at least 20 games 47 times, including 32 of the last 35 years.
Of course with a full week (three games) of regular season left, the final chapter has yet to be written in what is bordering on an incredible story. But there is no risk in celebrating Carolina’s overachievement to this point.
Granted, Roy Williams and his players will want to stick to their day-to-day focus. They can’t afford to look past a match-up with Maryland on Sunday. After all, when a player or coach has one foot in the future and one in the past, it leaves them in prone position to deal with the present.
“The goal is always to try and compete for the ACC league title, and to do that you take one game at a time,” Wes Miller said. “We have goals, but we’re not looking past the next one. You never know what he NCAA Selection Committee is thinking, we can’t control that. But we control our own destiny. If we keep winning we’ll be fine.”
So just how did UNC manage to maneuver itself into excellent position for a second-place finish and perhaps a berth to the NCAA Tournament beginning in nearby Greensboro? Didn’t the Tar Heels lose their top seven players – 91 percent of their scoring and 87 percent of their rebounding - from last year’s national championship squad? Weren’t they supposed to be painfully thin in the post with even more to worry about in the backcourt? How would a team with unprecedented inexperience deal with the rigors of UNC’s traditionally difficult schedule?
The fact is, few believed Carolina would salvage much from this season while waiting on more troops to arrive next year in the form of the nation’s top recruiting class. The media picked the Tar Heels to finish sixth, including Sports Illustrated, which didn’t think they would make the NCAAs.
UNC has in fact proven almost everyone wrong. But almost everything, especially in the month of February, seems to have gone right for Carolina.
Several teammates will usually finish games with more statistical production, but Bobby Frasor's ability to run the point guard position steadily and consistently has been a tremendous factor in the Tar Heels' achievements thus far this season. While he’s struggled at times to find his shooting touch, his unflappable composure, fundamental soundness and court savvy has set the tone for others to be successful.
Frasor will figure prominently in the coming years as well, even with the arrival of All-American Tywon Lawson. Frasor proved in high school he can shoot it, and remember, Raymond Felton wasn’t particularly accurate when he was a freshman either. As good as Frasor has been, he’s even better when he looks for his shot.
“Winning on the road takes poise and that often starts at the point,” Williams said. “For us to win more than half of our ACC road games and at Kentucky is a great credit to our players and especially Bobby. Point guards who play for me have a lot of responsibility, and freshmen point guards have so much thrown at them anyway. Add to that the speed we like to play at and it is remarkable for him to have one of the top assist-error numbers in the ACC. He’s not very flashy, but he is effective and he's only going to get better because he loves to learn each day in practice.”
Who knew Miller would be shooting threes at a 44 percent clip - and more importantly, contributing more than two made three-pointers per game? Be honest, who knew Miller would matter much at all? And while it’s his defense that buys him the bulk of his playing time, Miller has become one of the most dangerous long-range shooters in the conference if simply based on the fact he can’t be left alone.
In his career, Miller has converted 56 three-pointers out of 62 field goals and his assist-to-turnover ratio is 61-to-26. He rarely ever plays beyond his capabilities except on defense, where he has been most surprising. Game in, game out, the opposing player that draws Miller’s defensive assignment is in for a frustrating night.
Reyshawn Terry, who has excelled in part from constant "pushing" from Williams, is playing his way into All-ACC consideration. At one time it was unclear if Terry would ever be motivated enough to realize his potential. Now he has proven he can take a game over.
Terry has led UNC in scoring in four of the last six games and averaged 18.5 points over those six contests. He’s scored in double figures in each of the last 11 games (17 or more in
seven of those 11 games) and has made 50 of his last 93 shots from the floor in the last nine games (53.8 percent) Terry is also averaging 6.7 rebounds over the last six games.
There was little concern David Noel would bring consistent effort this year. But in his case, it was unclear if he could put up sufficient points as a 6-foot-6 power forward. He’s Carolina’s third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, but is arguably the team MVP and undoubtedly its leader.
“David really stepped up to a number of challenges presented to him this year, both from an individual standpoint and for our team,” Williams said. “He’s been one of the best leaders I have ever coached, which is especially important given the task of leading the youngest and most inexperienced team I’ve ever coached. His numbers have gone up, but not at the expense of what we need to do as a team. But he's never asked for more than he's earned and he’s earned plenty with his leadership, pride and talent.”
Danny Green is providing the quick scoring, shot-in-the-arm off the bench that Marvin Williams brought last season, as well as defense and rebounding. The team’s leading scorer off the bench and fourth overall with 8.0 points per game, he's 16 for his last 29 from three-point range (55.2 percent).
“Danny struggled somewhat early on, but then stepped up and made big shots for us at a key stretch of the season,” Williams said. “He has great confidence in his shooting and that paid off in important wins at Florida State, Maryland and Wake Forest and against Arizona. He has the attitude some players have that he’s always going to make the next one. But he’s also
worked hard to improve his handle and defense. He's had some good games for us rebounding the ball and leads us in blocked shots, which shows how athletic he can be.”
Tyler Hansbrough, meanwhile, has been sensational, leading the team with 18.8 points per game. His tenacity under the basket has been as advertised and more. After effectively winning conference Rookie of the Year honors as soon as he walked on the court, Hansbrough could easily wind up as the nation’s best freshman and earn a spot on the ACC's first team.
Hansbrough owns the fourth-highest scoring average by a freshman in ACC history behind Kenny Anderson (20.6), Mark Price (20.3) and Joe Smith (19.4). He leads the ACC in offensive rebounds (3.65 per game), is second in field goal percentage (.607), third in scoring (18.9) and sixth in rebounding (7.7). No Tar Heel freshman has ever led the team in scoring and rebounding
“It is remarkable to watch him play each day,” Williams said. “His motor never quits. It never even slows down. He loves to compete and to improve; he just loves to play the game. Considering how much pressure and attention was placed on Tyler at the start of the year, because of the recruiting hype and the fact we lost our top seven scorers, it's hard to imagine how he could do more for us than he has done.”
Marcus Ginyard, Quentin Thomas and Byron Sanders have been solid role players, which every good team must possess.
“The way we play, we always need good production off the bench,” Williams said. “Marcus and Wes have been outstanding working together. Sanders has been big rebounding for us off the bench.”
On a team without a true defensive stopper, in six of the last eight games, a different player has been voted by the coaching staff as Defensive Player of the Game.
Positively shocking has been UNC’s ability to get to the boards. The Tar Heels have out-rebounded its opponents 21 times in the first 24 games. They’re ranked first in the ACC with a plus-eight rebounding margin – UNC’s best differential since the 1998 team finished the season at plus-8.9.
“We’ve always had success rebounding the ball because we emphasize it so much,” Williams said. “But the kids have to buy into it and do it on game day, not just in practice.”
And the Tar Heels road success has been equally impressive. UNC is 6-1 as the visitors in ACC games, assuring for the 31st time in 53 seasons of ACC play, it will finish better than .500.
This will be the first time since the 1959-60 season Carolina will finish with a better conference record on the road than at home.
There were no budding NBA aspirations to deal with or inflated egos to feed. To a man, the Tar Heels came into the season with a team-first philosophy pleasing to eyes of Williams and UNC fans. Each player has bought into Williams’ instruction, focused only on improving with each practice and game.
Sure, the conference is widely considered to be down this year, which hasn’t hurt Carolina’s cause any. Duke has clearly separated itself as the best team, with UNC, NC State and Boston College poised to claim Thursday byes for the upcoming ACC Tournament. Meanwhile, outside of bubble teams Virginia, Miami and Florida State, the rest of the league has been of little consequence this season.
And Carolina has been fortunate enough not to suffer any serious injury. Other than a preseason wrist injury to Ginyard, a gimpy Thomas early in the season and Sanders’ chronic bout with bunions, the Tar Heels have been in good shape from a health standpoint.
But what Williams has done with this team, how he’s molded Terry, how he’s allowed Hansbrough to unleash his wrath in the paint, how he’s handled the switch from Ginyard to Miller at the starting two-guard position, how he led his team’s mid-season resurgence after it dropped three of four in late January… Simply how he’s guided the youngest, most inexperienced squad he’s ever coached, makes Williams a leading candidate for ACC and national Coach of the Year.
Despite starting two or three freshmen and two former walk-ons all year, Carolina has shot better than 50 percent from the floor in six of the last nine games. The Tar Heels came into the season unranked in the national polls, moved into the national Top 25 after the third week of the season and has been ranked in 10 of 12 weeks since.
So go ahead, live a little. Exhale and enjoy the here and now and feel free to expect big things from this Carolina basketball team.
“I’ve told them, you’re doing some nice things,” Williams said. “But I say, ‘Hey this is great, but this is one game; that’s all it is.’ But they’ve been fantastic to work with. I can’t imagine any other coach enjoying his team better than I am.”