In a lot of ways, it’s been a humbling year for the North Carolina Tar Heels.
After starting the season ranked No. 1 in the nation and favored to bring home the national title, UNC fell to upstart UNLV early in the year and has already accumulated three losses—including the stunning 33-point shellacking they took from Florida State two weeks ago.
For all its problems, though, Roy Williams’ team is still ranked No. 8 in the country as the schedule heads into its final month. Even more important, yesterday’s victory over Georgia Tech leaves the Tar Heels tied for first place in the ACC with 10 games yet to play.
Herein, a look at eight reasons why North Carolina will be able to use those 10 games to take over sole possession of the conference lead and win its fifth regular-season ACC crown in the last six years.
Of all the obstacles that have arisen to the Tar Heels’ national title hopes, none is more worrisome than the torn ACL that ended the season of shooting guard Dexter Strickland.
Although he was scoring a mere 7.5 points per game, the 6’3” Strickland was UNC’s best perimeter defender.
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, the ACC is ill-equipped to exploit Strickland’s absence. Florida State might be able to force the Heels to play defense by shutting down their offense again, but the Seminoles don’t play North Carolina again in the regular season.
With no other defensive slugfests likely, and only one elite scorer at SG to deal with—Terrell Stoglin of otherwise-unimpressive Maryland—North Carolina will be able to coast on its brilliant offense in these final 10 ACC games.
The perception of the ACC as a two-team league has been complicated by the unexpected rise of Virginia. Behind star power forward Mike Scott, the Cavaliers have risen to a No. 21 national ranking and a 17-3 record.
Despite their impressive performance, though, they’re not a team that’s likely to give UNC much of a fight in the two meetings remaining between the two schools.
Scott is the only big-time offensive weapon on the team—he and SG Joe Harris account for 45 percent of the Cavaliers’ points—and he’ll be giving up three inches to one of the country’s best defenders in John Henson.
This year’s ACC is surprisingly thin at the point guard spot, but Kendall Marshall is a glaring exception.
Where conference contenders like Florida State and Virginia limp along with assist averages that rank in the bottom third of the country, Marshall has the Tar Heels ranked fourth with 18.4 assists a night as a team.
In a close game, point guard play can make or break a team, and only NC State’s Lorenzo Brown is a floor leader to come close to Marshall in this conference.
Considering that Brown’s Wolfpack just lost in Chapel Hill by 19 points, it seems safe to say that he isn’t in much position to threaten Marshall’s supremacy.
No team in the ACC has been a bigger surprise in conference play than Florida State. After starting the season a disappointing 9-6, the Seminoles have ripped off five straight victories, including wins over UNC and Duke (in Durham).
As well as Leonard Hamilton’s team has played, though, it’s not actually quite as good as those two upsets have made it look.
Both wins were driven by extraordinary three-point shooting—witness Delvidas Dulkys’ 8-of-10 effort against the Heels—that can’t be counted on in the long term, and while the Seminoles are still a deadly opponent in Tallahassee, they’re too inconsistent to keep pace with UNC and Duke atop the conference.
The Tar Heels boast one of the nation’s tallest front lines—7’0” Tyler Zeller, 6’11” John Henson and 6’8” Harrison Barnes—but this team doesn’t just look like a great rebounding outfit.
UNC leads the nation with 46.4 rebounds a night, spearheaded by Henson’s 10.1 boards per game.
They’ll have plenty of opportunity to exploit their edge, because only one other team left on the Tar Heels’ schedule—NC State—ranks in the nation’s top 50 in that category.
The loss of defensive whiz Dexter Strickland would be a lot tougher to take if it weren’t for UNC’s ability to eliminate second-shot opportunities from the equation.
Aside from Duke, UNC has already faced the biggest threat on its schedule by visiting Florida State.
The Blue Devils, on the other hand, have already lost to the Seminoles in Durham and must still travel to Tallahassee (where they've lost repeatedly in recent seasons).
With Duke also having to visit Chapel Hill for the first half of that home-and-home, it’s entirely possible that the Tar Heels could clinch the conference title prior to the season finale at Durham.
A win over Duke is always sweet for the Heels, but doing it when the ACC crown was already wrapped up would be all the sweeter.
There are plenty of players flashier than John Henson in the ACC.
As good as Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin or Duke’s Austin Rivers or even teammate Harrison Barnes are, though, none of them can do more to control a game than the Tar Heels’ 6’11” forward.
Henson ranks 22nd in the nation in rebounding with 10.1 boards a game, and his 3.3 blocks per contest place eighth in the country in that category.
Add in the fact that he’s hardly an offensive liability at 14.3 points a night, and Henson is the most versatile, most dominant force the conference has to offer.
Just as it appeared in the preseason, the ACC is almost certain to come down to the two games the Tar Heels play against Duke in the final month.
The No. 6 Blue Devils are a formidable foe, but their biggest weakness plays right into UNC’s hands.
Duke’s losses have come against teams that can attack its weak perimeter defenders, and North Carolina brings the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense to do just that.
Dexter Strickland’s injury means that the Blue Devils will get plenty of points of their own, but a shootout between these two teams will have the Tar Heels with a big-time upper hand.