UNC Basketball: How the Tar Heels Can Sustain Momentum After Louisville Upset

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UNC Basketball: How the Tar Heels Can Sustain Momentum After Louisville Upset
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Admit it.

You didn't think the North Carolina Tar Heels had a shot at taking down the defending champion Louisville Cardinals this past Sunday. When ESPN's Jay Williams said "there is plenty of time left (for Louisville)" at halftime, you got a lump in your throat from the cold reality of his commentary.

You weren't alone. I felt it, too.

I was wondering how I could spin the loss into a positive note, no matter how the last 20 minutes played out. After all, a depleted UNC team was able to tie the game at the half, 44-44, off a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Marcus Paige.

The first half gave plenty for the Tar Heels to hang their hats on.

As it turned out, the second half brought as much optimism as the first. Carolina grabbed the lead two minutes in and never let it go, winning the title game, 93-84.

Holding that Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament trophy must have been a truly serene moment for this group of kids that had been heavily scrutinized by fans and media since the loss to Belmont. They earned that moment.

But moments like these are fleeting if a team hangs onto them for too long.

Never get too high. Never get too low. Maintain focus.

That will be the first step in North Carolina's quest for sustained momentum. The second step is more strategical.

Last week, I gave Paige the highest grade on the team for his offensive production. My only knock on the sophomore's game was his lack of aggression until the team became desperate for points. Without UNC's best shot creator, P.J. Hairston, he needed to be the guy.

Well, he was that guy this weekend, and that mentality needs to continue for the Tar Heels to be successful beyond November 24.

Paige scored 32 points on just 12 field-goal attempts in the title game, including a 3-of-5 showing from downtown—and 11-of-11 at the charity stripe. That, after posting 26 points the previous day.

By no means should anyone expect Paige to continue averaging 22.4 points, as he stands today through five games. He's going to have an off day at some point. Until that day comes, though, he needs to continue looking for his shot.

The Tar Heels have nailed 19 three-pointers this season. Seventeen have come from Paige—at a 53.1 percent clip. It's plain to see how crucial he is to the team's survival without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.

Then there was Kennedy Meeks, who must have solidified a boost in minutes—if not a start. My vote is on the latter.

Everything his teammates applauded him for in the offseason was showcased by the freshman big on Sunday.

Sneaky rebounder? Check. Tip-in specialist? Great hands? Amazing outlet passer? Check, check and check.

Meeks saw a season-high 24 minutes of action, and he rewarded coach Roy Williams with big play after big play. By my count, Meeks had at least five full-court outlet passes that ultimately buried the Cardinals. The highlight video missed at least one.

He also led the team in assists with seven.

A center.

In addition to that eye-opening stat, he produced 13 points, 12 boards and one steal. On the season, he is leading all centers by a wide margin with 0.51 points and 0.48 rebounds per minute played. It's time to settle the center debate.

Kennedy Meeks needs to start.

It is imperative for the Tar Heels to start as strong as possible, and that means making some lineup changes. That change has to include Brice Johnson, who has taken Hairston's place as the emotional leader of this team.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

After scoring 37 points over the weekend, Johnson is averaging 0.73 points and 0.36 rebounds per minute played. He also leads the team with seven blocks. Unfortunately, he's only averaging 20 minutes a game, due to a post-heavy roster.

In order to start both Johnson and Meeks, James Michael McAdoo would have to shift to the 3 and Nate Britt or J.P. Tokoto would end up on the bench. And though Britt had his best performance thus far against Louisville and its full-court press, starting Tokoto improves team rebounding.

No matter how the lineup is shuffled, though, it doesn't necessarily mean either of those guys will lose minutes. They shouldn't. But it's plain to see the team is at its best with Paige, Johnson and Meeks in the lineup.

If that's who Roy Williams wants on the floor to close out the game, that's who he should want to start it.

Another thing that seems to have helped over the last two games is the implementation of the zone defense. Everyone looks more comfortable than they did in the hedge-and-recover scheme, and Coach Williams can now take full advantage of his Tar Heels' length and athleticism.

This team has the talent to absolutely suffocate offenses. And the zone defense allows them to think less and react more.

That's how the Tar Heels can sustain momentum. They'll need it over the next few weeks when they face Michigan State, Kentucky and Texas.

However, the biggest mistake of all could be overlooking the UAB Blazers on December 1, who scored 55 second-half points in last year's meeting.

One game at a time, young Tar Heels.

Never get too high. Never get too low. Maintain focus.

 

 

Rollin Yeatts is the lead columnist for North Carolina Tar Heels basketball on Bleacher Report. He also hosts a weekly all-sports video podcast at TSB Sports. Visit his B/R profile for more information.

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