North Carolina Basketball: Why Tar Heels Are Too Dangerous to Overlook
North Carolina basketball didn't start off so hot this season. Now it's coming on stronger than Joel James' biceps.
After disposing of Maryland 62-52 on Saturday, the Tar Heels have won their last two conference games in a big-time fashion—and this is just the beginning. The team is starting to look like one cohesive unit, rather than a bunch of misplaced parts. And it is becoming too dangerous to overlook.
As the young players at UNC gain more experience and confidence, the weapons Roy Williams will have at his disposal could be deadly for any ACC foe.
It's time to settle down on those "NIT" chants.
Marking the FSU victory as a turning point in its season, Carolina could still make a strong run at the ACC title—despite its 0-2 start to conference play. It has the toughest conference schedule this season, facing Duke, NC State, Miami, Virginia, Florida State and Maryland twice.
That could turn out to be a gift or a curse, but if the Tar Heels can keep this momentum going, it may start feeling a lot like Christmas by March 9.
It's easy to look at a 12-5 team and think of them as mediocre. What people fail to see about these Tar Heels is that they are winning despite their deficiencies.
And their shortcoming will dwindle as these young players gain experience, which makes them even more dangerous going forward.
Beware of the Tar Heels.
Defense Is Coming Along
North Carolina is certainly filled with raw talent, and its lack of experience in Roy's hedge-and-recover scheme has cost the team a few games. There is no denying the defensive prowess of individual players such as Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland, J.P. Tokoto, James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston—just to name a few.
When all that talent blends together as one, it will run teams right out of the building.
That's exactly what UNC did to Maryland in the first half of Saturday's contest. The Tar Heels forced five turnovers in the Terps' first seven possessions using their speed, athleticism and quick hands to wreak havoc upon Maryland's offense.
It used to be that the Tar Heels had to shoot lights-out to get a win. On Saturday, they shot 35.4 percent to Maryland's 39.6 percent. The difference in the game was the 21 turnovers they forced on the Terrapins.
There was more effort put into the defensive end in the first half than we have seen in an entire game from North Carolina this season. Fourteen of its 42 first-half points came off turnovers, and eight of those 14 points came in transition.
That's Carolina basketball, folks. It is far from dead.
Will it completely come together this season? That's tough to say for sure, but the Tar Heels have given onlookers a glimpse of their potential—it's just a matter of keeping it consistent.
The Triangle Trio
McAdoo, Hairston and Bullock have all posted career-high games in the scoring column this season. The trio accounts for 40.6 points per game, and together they have scored 20 or more points in five contests. It's unfortunate they haven't all been on fire in the same game.
That should worry opponents even more.
It's hard to even fathom the impact this threesome would have on a game if they were all on fire. It may not be long before opponents are faced with that type of onslaught.
Maryland got a taste of it, with Bullock's career-high 24 points and McAdoo doing his part with 19. Together, they were 15-of-31 from the floor.
Hairston finished just 1-of-8.
Even when their shooting is off, these guys still find ways to contribute. Hairston pulled in four rebounds—two on the offensive glass—and three assists on Saturday.
The trio accounts for six assists, 3.7 steals, 1.1 blocks and an impressive 18.4 rebounds per game, considering Bullock and Hairston play the wing positions.
It isn't just the scoring that makes these guys a threat; it's everything else they do on the court. And with all three of them just now becoming go-to guys at the collegiate level, their ceilings aren't even close to being reached.
Hairston is finding his rhythm and Bullock is becoming aggressive. McAdoo is slowing down, letting the game come to him rather than forcing the matter.
There is a deadly trio brewing in the Triangle.
The Triple Threat
As a team, the Tar Heels are shooting 36.6 percent behind the arc. But Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are combining to shoot 40.7 percent from that range.
Together, they knock down 5.8 treys per game. And that's with McDonald missing the last two due to a tweaked knee.
Bullock currently ranks third in the ACC, shooting 47.7 percent from downtown. He also ranks second in threes made with 42.
McDonald and Hairston come in at 43.1 and 33 percent, respectively.
While Hairston's 33 percent is nothing to gawk at, it's nothing to balk at either. He has a tendency to bury them at the most crucial moments of a game, which has made him a go-to guy in times of need.
And when he's on, everything seems to drop for Hairston.
This is a triple threat teams have to worry about guarding on the perimeter. As the center position gets more scoring looks and McAdoo becomes more efficient, the outside threats of Bullock, McDonald and Hairston will be even more potent.
Paige Is Developing
Carolina's freshman point guard Marcus Paige is still finding his bearings at the collegiate level. He was the primary scorer in his high school days at Linn-Mar, and now he is in more of a distributor role at one of the most decorated programs in college history.
Like the Triangle Trio never being on fire together, this should be looked at as more threatening than favorable to opponents.
With each game since his turning point, Paige looks like he gains a better grasp of the Carolina offense and the players surrounding him. Both of which are keys to becoming a true floor general.
There are few instant-success stories for freshmen point guards that start from Day 1. It takes time to grasp the speed and physicality of the college game—not to mention the imposing defenses and crowds around the country.
Now Paige is driving and dishing off assists worthy of a SportsCenter Top 10.
While they don't come at the rate of his predecessor, Kendall Marshall, those jaw-dropping assists are happening more frequently as the season has progressed. As Paige continues to develop and the Triangle Trio becomes more consistent, his game will only get better.
And when Paige gets more comfortable with his role as a distributor, there is a good chance he also becomes the efficient scorer he used to be.
Winning Without a Center
The Tar Heels may be out of the AP Top 25 and hold a record of 12-5, but they have managed to do that without a go-to center.
Last season, Tyler Zeller offered up 16.3 points per game from the 5 spot. Carolina's only true centers this season—Desmond Hubert and Joel James—are combining for 4.3 points per game.
That's a pretty dramatic drop, considering the efficiency of Roy Williams' scheme hinges on the ability to work inside-out.
Brice Johnson and Jackson Simmons have also played center, but their scoring has been split between that and power forward. The two combo players have provided 9.8 points per game.
Even if all their points came from the 5, the four players are still 2.2 points shy of Zeller's contribution. That is staggering.
The bad news for opponents is that this group is starting to come along.
Hubert is playing with an intensity never seen before from the sophomore. He had a block and two steals in the first 1:20 of the Maryland game.
James only provided four points and one rebound over his 11 minutes, but he looked more comfortable than he has this entire season. He positioned himself very well on defense and shot with confidence when given the opportunity. Most importantly, James never got down on himself for mistakes.
The two primary centers are coming along slowly, but they are on their way to developing into solid contributors. Not everything they do can be read on a stat line, so don't get too caught up in what you see in the box score.
If you want evidence by numbers, look no further than Alex Len's 10 points and five rebounds on Saturday. NC State and UNC are the only teams in the ACC to make Len a non-factor thus far.
That had a lot to do with the play of Hubert and James.