By this point, everyone is aware of the story surrounding the North Carolina Tar Heels. They have been playing all year without two of their starting backcourt players. Their roster and rotations have been stretched because of this.
The team has also suffered two embarrassing losses already this season. Nevertheless, UNC has proven itself elite when it has mattered most. With wins over No. 1 Michigan State, No. 3 Louisville and No. 11 Kentucky, North Carolina has the best resume in college basketball up to this point.
So how have the Tar Heels done it, and what have we learned from these three upset victories?
This point is clear just based on who the Tar Heels have beaten and who they have lost to. However, it bears mentioning.
North Carolina is one of the worst shooting teams in the country on the most efficient shots: threes and free throws.
Against Michigan State, UNC was just 2-of-11 from three-point range. Against Louisville, it attempted only six threes in total. In the Kentucky game, in which the team went 2-of-7 from three, J.P. Tokoto made just the fourth three all season by a Tar Heel other than Marcus Paige.
And the foul line has been even worse, if that's possible. North Carolina shoots 61 percent from the line as a unit—just an atrocious figure. The team missed a grand total of 39 free throws in its three big wins, and that was with Marcus Paige going a combined 24-of-26 from the line in that span!
So how is this team even winning? Usually it's an edge in rebounding, but that didn't even occur in the Kentucky game, when the Cats outrebounded North Carolina 44 to 32. The other factor at play is that UNC shoots well, even if it's not from the "important" parts of the court.
The team's field-goal percentage on the season is up near 48 percent. In the MSU game, it only shot 44.6 percent from the floor, but in the other two wins, North Carolina shot 54.2 percent and 48.2 percent, respectively.
Even though Marcus Paige's outside shot has been betraying him a bit these past few ballgames, the sophomore guard has proven himself one of the best second-half players around.
In the two recent contests (the MSU and UK games), Paige was nearly invisible in the first half. In the Kentucky game, the length of the defenders was obviously causing Paige problems. He couldn't get any clean shots off. He didn't hit a field goal the entire first half and went scoreless until there were 1.9 seconds left, when he hit two technical free throws.
However, the second half saw Paige explode, like he has in many games this season. He didn't just launch a ton of threes to get back in it. Instead, he took the ball to the basket over and over again. He got to the foul line, grabbed easy layups and finished with a game-high 23 points. It was remarkable considering how the first half went.
This is the sign of a great player. When his shot is not falling, he still finds ways to score. And when his team needs him (i.e. the second half), he comes through.
Coming off the bench all season, Brice Johnson has averaged just 20.6 minutes per game. This is partly due to what coach Roy Williams deems are lapses in effort and defensive intensity. It seems coming off the bench and limiting his minutes has also sparked Johnson to fits of brilliance.
His numbers on the year are excellent. Averaging 13 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks, Johnson is shooting 59.5 percent from the floor. He has also become one of the Heels' few mid-range shooting threats.
Against Louisville, the sophomore forward scored 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting in just 21 minutes. The Michigan State game saw him score 14 points in 25 minutes on 6-of-11 shooting. Although his shot wasn't falling as readily against Kentucky, Johnson still tallied eight points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes.
While the UK game was James Michael McAdoo's default coming-out party on the scoreboard, Johnson proved himself a defensive threat in this game as well. He blocked a couple shots and altered a couple more. He also showed intensity on that end of the floor while continuing his offensive effort.
Perhaps limiting his minutes is the cause of his excellence. It would be interesting to see what he would do playing 35 minutes a night.
The young freshman forward has had a stellar rookie season thus far. His numbers are outstanding considering his limited minutes. However, the Kentucky game finally revealed a chink in Meeks' armor. He simply couldn't hang with the Wildcat athletes.
While he had seen great success in the post this season, against Kentucky, Meeks struggled to get shots away, let alone score. He seemed outmatched and swallowed up by the leaping ability of Willie Cauley-Stein and others.
The box score isn't ideal for Meeks. He finished up with just one point and four rebounds in 19 minutes. But the eye test was even more alarming. While great passing and positioning had carried Meeks' game into mini-legend status after just a few weeks, Kentucky seemed to be playing above the young man rather than against him.
Players have succeeded with limited athleticism in the past and even in the NBA. It just takes better routes, smarter plays and a greater effort. Kennedy Meeks can get there; he just isn't there quite yet.
This is not referring to the emotional feeling of believing a team is good enough to topple a superior opponent. The lack of respect is more in the game play.
Kentucky was switching everything during Saturday's contest. The Wildcats were switching guards onto forwards and bigs onto guards. They were switching pick-and-rolls at the top of the key and on the wings. Kentucky was displaying no respect for two huge aspects of North Carolina's game: outside shooting and post-up ability.
Normally when a guard is switched onto a big, the big man can take him down low and score over the top. Kentucky showed no fear of this. This is perhaps partly because the UK guards are very tall, but the Wildcats still do not have the bodies to stop legitimate power forwards. Yet this occurred over and over.
Shooting guard James Young switched numerous times onto James Michael McAdoo, as did point guard Andrew Harrison. Yet McAdoo never took them inside or made them pay like you would expect. He did hit a couple jump shots on these switches, which is nice but hardly what you expect from him or from a big in that situation.
The other obvious takeaway from opponents switching all picks is that they aren't afraid to sink under and leave shooters open on the outside. Since North Carolina can't hit threes, this seems like a reasonable defense.
Disrespect on the floor has also shown itself late in the last two big games. Both Michigan State and Kentucky began intentionally fouling with multiple minutes remaining in the contest. Although the comebacks didn't materialize, the intentional fouling worked perfectly in the UK game. J.P. Tokoto was fouled and missed the front end of a one-and-one. Nate Britt then did the same thing the following possession.
It should be a bit worrisome and embarrassing that this strategy is being employed. Hopefully Coach Williams and the players feel the same level of disrespect and work to correct things.