CHAPEL HILL — Three North Carolina-related things to ponder on this beautiful Thursday morning from Chapel Hill …
No. 7 North Carolina has enjoyed a solid day and a half or so alone in first place atop the ACC standings. That will change tonight, when either Duke or Florida State joins the Tar Heels. The Blue Devils and Seminoles play tonight at 7 in Tallahassee in what just might be the most important regular-season college basketball game there in … forever? Probably not. But it has been a long, long time since Florida State hosted a game of this magnitude.
Both the Blue Devils and Seminoles have beaten UNC head-to-head, and thus hold a tie-breaker over the Heels. But for North Carolina to keep hope alive of winning the mythical ACC regular season championship, it needs Duke to win tonight in Tallahassee. The reason is obvious enough: UNC will get another chance at Duke. And the Heels will have no such opportunity against Florida State.
Of course, Florida State could win tonight and then stumble at some point in its final three games. The Seminoles go on the road to Miami and Virginia, before finishing the season at home against Clemson. But the most direct path for the Tar Heels to finish with the top seed in the ACC Tournament is for Duke to win tonight, for UNC to win its next two – at Virginia and against Maryland at home – and then for the Heels to beat the Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Duke's senior night.
Easier said than done. But a Blue Devils victory tonight allows the Heels to control their own destiny.
A couple lingering thoughts from the Tar Heels’ 86-74 victory against N.C. State on Tuesday night:
--Strange victory for the Tar Heels given they abandoned the usual script to win this game – and still win it somewhat convincingly. UNC dominated the lane the first time these teams met, back in January, and especially dominated in offensive rebounding. But the Wolfpack controlled the lane, outscoring UNC 42-22 in the paint, and 16-8 off second-chance points.
--In fact, if you look at the box score, you'll see that N.C. State took 13 more shots from the field and outscored UNC in the paint, off of turnovers, on second-chance points, on fast-break points and in points off the bench. The major difference, of course, was 3-point shooting. The Heels made 10 of their 19 attempts, while the Pack made just 3 of 13.
--This might seem like the dummy statement of the year but it’s so true with the Tar Heels: They’re such a different team when the outside shots are falling. Every team is a better team when it’s making shots, of course, but UNC becomes significantly better because it’s a good team even when the outside shots aren’t falling. UNC has learned this season to get by without much of a perimeter offensive game that when those shots go in, it’s like a bonus.
Last night UNC junior forward John Henson, whose Twitter handle (@_john_henson_) makes an impressive use of the underscore, tweeted this: “Still waiting on people to show HB some NPOY love... I mean do y'all see what he's doing as of late ?? The boy is going to work!”
The funny thing about that is there’s a large segment of media members and fans who think that Harrison Barnes wouldn’t be worthy of a spot on the All-ACC first-team, let alone deserve to be in the national player of the year discussion.
Barnes was on my mid-season All-ACC team – the first team – and I engaged in some healthy debate with other members of the ACC press corps who didn’t believe he was deserving of first team. The knock on Barnes is that he’s not an overly impressive defender and that no one area of his game stands out as much as his scoring.
Still, I’d find it extremely difficult to leave him off my first team if I had a vote (and, for the record, I don’t). Barnes has scored at least 20 points in seven of UNC’s 12 conference games, and he has most often done his best work in the second half, when the Heels need his contributions the most.
Barnes was clutch in the second halves of victories at Virginia Tech, at Maryland and at Miami – and UNC trailed in the second half in all of them – and if not for Austin Rivers’ 3 and Duke’s improbable comeback in Chapel Hill, it would have been Barnes’ 19 second-half points on a gimpy left ankle that would have created headlines the next day (that was my story until the final minutes happened).