Sometimes when two good teams play each other, the final score is not indicative of how the game actually went. North Carolina's 79-65 win over No. 1 Michigan State was not one of those cases.
From the opening tip, the Tar Heels looked like the better team and eventually closed out the 14-point victory. This will obviously drop the Spartans from the nation's top spot. It should also vault UNC back into the Top 25 rankings when a new edition is released next week.
It is hard to get a solid feel on this Carolina squad. The Tar Heels have now beaten two of the best teams in the country: Michigan State and Louisville. They have also lost two bad ones to UAB and to Belmont.
Wherever this Tar Heel season is headed, there were a number of big takeaways from their latest win.
For some unknown reason, all the Michigan State players came out last night wearing matching, bright, lime green socks. They looked horrid. I can only assume the loudness of their socks took away from the power of their performance to start the game because MSU came out very flat.
UNC grabbed a 6-0 lead before the Spartans even seemed to run a play on offense.
Eventually, the lead ballooned to 18-6 in favor of Carolina. The alarming part for MSU, and the wondrous part for Carolina, was that the huge lead was gathered with nothing more than points in the paint and putback follows.
North Carolina was getting absolutely nothing from the outside and didn't need anything on its way to a 24-12 first half lead.
North Carolina freshman point guard Nate Britt is already a very good on-ball defender.
Although his offensive game still needs work, as he occasionally makes poor decisions and still has no outside shot, his defense is already starter-worthy.
Matched up against Keith Appling for most of the game, Britt managed to shut down one of the best point guards in the country. Before Appling got hurt around the six-minute mark of the first half (he returned to the game with one minute remaining in the half), the Spartan guard was having all kinds of trouble doing much of anything.
There was one play where Britt went too far under a screen and got bottled up in the paint, allowing Appling an easy jumper. Other than that play, Britt allowed nothing to Appling in the first half.
The second half proved more of the same, as Appling managed just one easy bucket and was forced into a number of tough shots.
Britt played Appling to a standstill as far as points are concerned, and that is far more than even the staunchest Carolina defender could have expected.
The outside shooting for North Carolina is quite an odd site. Other than Marcus Paige, who was shut down for most of this game, no one takes any threes. In this game, Paige had nine attempts; the rest of the team had two.
However, that does not mean Carolina shies away from outside shots. Instead, it is the power forwards, James Michael McAdoo and Brice Johnson, who like taking long twos to stretch defenses and keep opponents honest.
McAdoo struggled this game as he has all year. He only went 3-of-11 in the game. However, Johnson has really come into his own as an offensive threat, even from 18 feet away. Johnson finished the game 6-of-11 from the field, scoring 14 points.
The sad part is Nate Britt and J.P. Tokoto still cannot find their range. It is especially devastating to watch Tokoto attempt any kind of jump shot.
With roughly six minutes remaining in the first half, announcer Jay Bilas began an anecdote in reference to suspended Carolina guard P.J. Hairston.
In said story, Bilas claimed that Roy Williams described P.J. Hairston in practice as the most dominant guard he has ever had.
Even though North Carolina built up a sizable first-half lead, Michigan State battled back to tie the game at 32 heading into half.
Marcus Paige, Carolina's clear leader and best scorer, managed just two first-half points. UNC as a team didn't score in the final five minutes of the half.
Seeing those figures, it was rather remarkable Carolina was even tied, let alone having dominated most stretches of the contest.
The first-half matchup between two of the nation's best guards was underwhelming. However, to start the second half, Marcus Paige hit his first three on the team's first shot attempt.
Paige finished the game with 13 points, five rebounds and five assists. It was a good stat line considering the sophomore went just 4-of-14 from the field.
On the other side, Michigan State's Gary Harris struggled as well. Battling an ankle injury, which he tweaked early in the second half, Harris finished with 17 points on 5-of-15 shooting to lead all scorers.
It wasn't the best game either guy had played, partly due to the fact that they were covering each other. Even a banged-up Harris is one of the better defenders in the country. And Marcus Paige proved himself to be somewhat on that level when he wants to be.
North Carolina had a great game in the paint, specifically scoring in the post.
Freshman Kennedy Meeks went 5-of-6 posting up. He was fronted a number of times, but it didn't matter. Meeks finished 6-of-8 from the field overall, scoring a team-high 15 points. With just 18 minutes played, Meeks once again proved himself to be one of the most efficient players in the ACC.
But he wasn't alone. Brice Johnson also had a good game scoring in the post. In fact, the two underclassmen are already better post scorers than default-starting-forward James Michael McAdoo.
At this point, Roy Williams continues to start McAdoo and Joel James at the big spots strictly for continuity. There is no resemblance of a reward for playing well going on here.
With the game tied at 49-49 midway through the second half, North Carolina, as a team, had attempted seven three-pointers. They had made just one.
At the same point in the contest, Michigan State had gone 6-of-17 from distance for an advantage of 15 points behind the arc.
The end-game numbers were of similar ilk. Carolina shot 2-of-11 from three. MSU went 7-of-24.
This is going to be a problem for UNC all year long. The Spartans shot poorly from deep, but if a team catches fire, North Carolina does not have the long-range shooters to keep up.
The Tar Heels' good paint play will win them ballgames. Their rock-bottom outside play could lose them many as well.
For a stretch of a couple minutes in the second half, Roy Williams again experimented with his super big lineup.
In this alignment, Marcus Paige plays point, J.P. Tokoto plays 2-guard, James Michael McAdoo is in at small forward, and Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks man the other two big spots.
Against Michigan State, it seemed to work...kind of. UNC scored six points to the Spartans' two with that lineup out there. However, the Tar Heels gave up a number of open three-point shots. Also, McAdoo slid in and almost seemed like the shooting guard on the offensive side since Tokoto is such a bad shooter.
It is still a work in progress, but the super big lineup is a weapon Roy Williams can turn to all year to create matchup problems.
With three minutes still remaining in the game and North Carolina holding on to a double-digit lead, Michigan State started to foul on purpose.
It was a surprising turn of events. Nate Britt was the first Shaq to be hacked. MSU continued to foul for a number of possessions, and North Carolina routinely hit one or two free throws. UNC finished the game 19-of-27 from the line. The 70 percent mark was a much better figure than the Heels hit in past games but is still not ideal.
It will be interesting to see if other opponents turn to this strategy as early in future games.
As weird as it sounds, North Carolina did not look like a much better basketball team than Michigan State. The Tar Heels surely PLAYED better. But they also just seemed to play harder.
The announcers kept pointing out how Carolina players were getting to the ground faster for loose balls and were generally hustling more. J.P. Tokoto was the epitome of this feeling.
Tokoto is a bad shooter and weak offensive player. However, he is a battler and a scrapper. He kept so many loose balls alive in the game and changed plays with his athleticism. Tokoto finished with a double-double, and his 6-of-10 shooting seems to indicate he is starting to know which shots he can take and which to pass up. There were still a couple jumpers that he needs to avoid taking in the future, but his game is a work in progress.
The other takeaway here is that neither team's stars played all that well. James Michael McAdoo and Adreian Payne, the two star forwards, were both off. Payne at least had an excuse as he was battling what appeared to be constant cramping in his leg.
Paige and Harris, the two star guards, were also less than elite, meaning this game came down to the "other guys" on each squad. Great news for North Carolina. They were able to defeat the top-ranked team in the country on the strength of their depth and balance.