CHAPEL HILL — And after everything, North Carolina will enter the postseason just how people expected it would: As the ACC regular-season champion, and with a good chance to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
No, the Tar Heels weren’t as dominant as prognosticators predicted them to be during the preseason. There was that 10-point loss against UNLV that knocked off some of UNC’s luster early on, and then, after a one-point loss at Kentucky in early December, a 33-point defeat at Florida State on Jan. 14 that called into question UNC’s ability to compete for a national championship.
But after UNC went into Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday night and dismantled No. 4 Duke in an 88-70 victory, the Tar Heels’ bandwagon is beginning to fill back up. Before the Heels head to Atlanta as the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament later this week, a look back at a few things we learned about them in the regular season:
UNC is a resilient bunch.
According to the expectations, this was supposed to be a season in which the Tar Heels encountered few real challenges. And why not? The Heels returned a loaded roster and a frontcourt comprised entirely of future first-round NBA draft picks. Kendall Marshall, who excelled after his promotion to starting point guard midway through his freshman season, was back and UNC welcomed two prized recruits – P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo.
And though UNC won the ACC regular season championship, it overcame many obstacles to get there. That 33-point loss at Florida State was the first major one. It represented the worst loss of the Roy Williams era, and it could have drained the Heels of their confidence and sent them spiraling. And for one half at Virginia Tech, which is where UNC played days following that loss in Tallahassee, the FSU loss appeared like it could have that effect.
But the Heels rallied to win that game, and then won their next four, too. The bounce-back victory against the Hokies, though, provided UNC with more trouble. During the second half, when the Heels were beginning to surge, they lost starting shooting guard Dexter Strickland to a season-ending knee injury. In an instant, UNC lost its best on-the-ball defender, and its backup to Marshall.
UNC adapted, relying on freshman Stilman White to spot Marshall for a minute or two each half. Reggie Bullock, the team’s reliable sixth man, ascended into the starting lineup and received praise for filling the defensive void left by Strickland. And then came Feb. 8. UNC appeared headed for a relatively comfortable victory at home against Duke.
But then came the Blue Devils’ rally. They overcame a 10-point deficit with two-and-a-half minutes to play. Austin Rivers made a 3 at the buzzer to give the Blue Devils an 85-84 victory, and the shot was the kind that could derail a season. In the next game, again, the Heels were sluggish in the first half against a team from the state of Virginia. But again, UNC imposed its will in the second half and what turned out to be a convincing win against Virginia.
Tyler Zeller, who endured an awful stretch in the closing moments of the Feb. 8 loss against Duke, rebounded, too, and emerged in the closing weeks of the season as the favorite to win ACC Player of the Year. UNC finished the season with six consecutive victories, half of them on the road, two of them on the road against rivals N.C. State and Duke.
Williams recently praised his team’s resiliency, and it’s no wonder why.
The Heels have indeed learned how to consistently play with intensity.
The UNC team that took the court against Duke on Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium had a far different look about it than the one that coasted through December following that loss against Kentucky. Williams said earlier this season that, no, the Tar Heels weren’t a naturally intense group. But that he was hopeful they’d become one because that kind of trait – intensity – can be learned.
Entering the postseason, the Heels have developed an edge. Marshall has become a more vocal leader, as evidenced by his leadership before the victory at Duke, when he gathered his teammates and told them they should feel disrespected by Duke’s decision to show a replay of Rivers’ game-winning shot during the team intros. Zeller, a quiet, reserved type, is playing with more intensity, too, and his teammates are drawing from that.
For a while this season, maybe even for much of the season, the Tar Heels seemed like a bunch of nice guys who happened to be good at basketball. Now, though, they’ve developed that edge that had been missing. Maybe it was the shocking one-point loss against Duke. Maybe guys are now more comfortable in their leadership roles. Maybe they heard enough from Williams talking about the need to play with that kind of edge.
Whatever the case, the Heels have more of that “it” factor now that had been missing before.
Amid all the good, though, there are plenty of concerns surrounding UNC entering the postseason.
There are a lot of reasons to be high on UNC entering the ACC tournament, but it’s important to remember this is still a flawed team in some respects. The Tar Heels lack depth, and it remains to be seen how much of an issue that will be in tournament play.
Since Strickland’s injury, Marshall has averaged nearly 36 minutes per game. What happens if he wears down? And how will opposing teams try to wear Marshall down?
Streaky shooting continues to be a problem, too. The Heels looked so dominant in victories at N.C. State and at Duke in large part because they converted their open shots into points. UNC was on during those games, no question. But the Heels have been off enough times to wonder what will happen if they encounter an awful shooting game in March. Can Zeller and John Henson carry the load by themselves on the interior?
And production off the bench continues to be an area of concern. McAdoo is a much more confident, much more aggressive player now than he was two months ago. And he is progressing. But Hairston continues to be mired in the shooting slump that has plagued him the second half of the season, and Justin Watts and White aren’t expected to provide scoring when they play. So who provides that spark off the bench when UNC needs it?
The Tar Heels will begin play in the ACC tournament on Friday at noon against either Maryland or Wake Forest. Should UNC advance to the semifinals, it could potentially play either Virginia or N.C. State.