North Carolina Basketball: 5 Things Tar Heels Must Prove Before ACC Tournament
If there is anything we have learned about North Carolina basketball under the leadership of head coach Roy Williams, it's that the program can rarely be counted out.
Sure, there was the 2009-10 season when UNC lost the NIT championship to Dayton. But Ol' Roy has still produced six ACC regular-season titles, two ACC tournament titles, six Elite Eight appearances and two national titles.
Even without a title, this could still prove to be his best campaign yet.
Whether we agree with his strategies this season or not, the fact remains that this team is winning when it matters the most. The final stretch of the season is where Roy truly proves his worth.
The Tar Heels are playing their best ball of the season now, and it all has to do with going small and inserting P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup.
But we only have a small sample of what this new lineup is capable of doing, as the change was just implemented four games ago. As good as North Carolina has looked since the move, going small still has its drawbacks.
The starters must continue to prove they belong on the floor. The following five questions will need positive answers if they plan to compete in the ACC tournament.
Can the Tar Heels Play Hard-Nosed Defense?
For much of the season, it seemed as though the Tar Heels wanted no part of playing hard-nosed defense. Since Coach Williams shifted to the small lineup, this is no longer the case.
UNC is playing its best ball of the season on both sides of the floor, and it all started with such a simple move: leave the centers on the bench and start P.J. Hairston at the 4.
It wasn't that the centers were playing horrible defense. That was the best part of Desmond Hubert's game. The move made the team faster and more capable of scoring points in transition.
Over the last two games, the Tar Heels have scored 24 points on fast breaks and 48 points off 35 turnovers. They also have 23 steals over that span.
But those stats aren't just about the added speed and scoring ability of the group.
Hairston's pores secrete fire, passion and confidence unlike anyone else on the squad. That has appeared to rub off on the rest of the guys.
They are no longer docile cows just grazing the defensive end of the floor. They have become fighter bulls willing to do anything to defend their territory.
Can the Tar Heels Be More Than a Jump-Shooting Team?
North Carolina is stacked with wing players, which means there are a lot of guys who like to take jump shots. And now that four of the five starters are guards, that lineup has potential for catastrophe if they aren't smart with their shot selection.
Surprisingly, UNC's shot selection has probably been its best over the last four games.
Having P.J. Hairston at the power forward position has stretched the floor, pulling the other team's 4 away from the paint. That has opened driving lanes for the other guys, and they have become more willing to slash to the basket.
That has made all the difference for Dexter Strickland, who is at his best when he is taking it to the hole. He has reduced his random fall-away jumpers and increased his drives.
Subsequently, Strickland is 14-of-29 from the floor, 10-of-12 from the charity stripe and is scoring 9.5 points per game since the lineup change.
By no means has Carolina been perfect. Bad shots have been taken at any level. However, the team has kept those shots to a minimum, and it's paying off with three straight wins.
Can the Tar Heels Get to the Line and Make Their Free Throws?
The Tar Heels are ranked near the bottom in both free-throw attempts and free-throw percentage. They are attempting 18.7 free throws per game (225th) and converting them at a disappointing 65.8 percent rate (276th).
The lack of attempts has a lot to do with James Michael McAdoo's soft play (avoiding contact, rather than initiating it) and a lack of penetration from the guards.
McAdoo has still gotten to the line almost twice as much as anyone else on the squad. But he has also left 63 of a possible 143 points on the line.
The sophomore power forward/center is only shooting 55.9 percent from the line this season. And that won't do much for a team's average when he is shooting from the line the most.
With the new lineup, guards are finally penetrating and taking a majority of the free throws. That has had a positive impact on their free-throw percentage.
Over the last three games, the Tar Heels are shooting 72.7 percent from the line. Free-throw attempts still aren't anywhere close to where they need to be, but making them is a good first step on the team's road of progression.
Can the Smaller Lineup Battle with the Bigs?
The small lineup has been tested in two straight games against Georgia Tech and NC State. James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston went to war with dual post threats in Robert Carter Jr. and Daniel Miller, followed by C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell.
As a consequence of their smaller size, those teams won the rebounding battle. But the Tar Heels won the war with back-to-back victories.
The four opposing bigs produced an average of 8.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.3 turnovers apiece. Meanwhile, McAdoo and Hairston average 14.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and just two turnovers apiece.
Pending the return of Ryan Kelly, this duo's toughest test will come March 9 when they face Duke in the Dean Dome for the final game of the regular season.
McAdoo did a nice job on Mason Plumlee in the first meeting, but containing Duke's post men will be much tougher with Ryan Kelly in the game. Kelly can spread the floor with his three-point shooting, and he has six inches on Hairston.
Can Marcus Paige Lead This Team at the Point?
Can freshman Marcus Paige lead this team at the point?
He just might have answered that question against NC State.
In the first matchup, Paige finished with seven points, four assists, three turnovers and no steals. On Saturday, he had 14 points, eight assists, no turnovers and three steals.
What a difference a month can make.
Paige has had a few quality games mixed in there this season, but none were as impressive as this one, considering the competition and the revived rivalry.
Beyond the opponent, he seemed more willing to drive. On one play in final minutes, Paige signaled the team to spread out, taking Scott Wood to the hole and completing the and-one.
Paige finished the night 4-of-5 from the free-throw line. He is 18-of-19 from the charity stripe over the last three games, which is evidence he is slashing with more frequency.
He is also pushing the ball in transition more with his lead pass. As soon as he gets it, he is firing it down the floor to the runners. The Tar Heels' 28 fast-break points over the last two games has a lot to do with Paige getting the ball out faster.
Paige has been a streaky shooter all season, and that will probably still continue. But the biggest concern is proving he can run this team. Without a solid floor general to put them together, this team is just a bunch of spare parts.
With his performance on Saturday, the team looked more like a well-oiled machine.
If the Tar Heels can consistently give positive answers to these questions, they will prove they don't just belong in the ACC tournament by default. They could end up the team to beat.
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