A week ago, it seemed as though the North Carolina Tar Heels season was spiraling out of control, following a lackadaisical effort against the Virginia Cavaliers that dropped their ACC record to 1-4. Then, just when everyone was ready to write UNC off, it followed up that poor performance with two of its best against Clemson and Georgia Tech.
While those two teams may not be on the level of Michigan State, Louisville or Kentucky—Carolina's signature wins this season—they were rare, convincing wins against capable opponents.
So, what can we take from this up-and-down season the Tar Heels are having? Here are a few of the biggest lessons learned in ACC play that should help this team stay on track through the remainder of the schedule.
After Kennedy Meeks' incredible game against Louisville—when he dropped 13 points, 12 boards, one steal and seven dimes on the defending champion in a span of 24 minutes—everyone was looking for the freshman to leapfrog Joel James as the starting center. In fact, many were begging for the move to be made, including myself.
But, after a one-point performance against Kentucky and a mediocre start to his first ACC season, folks were ready to jump ship on the Meeks project. In his first two starts of his career, he totaled seven points, 14 rebounds and no assists.
A strong performance against Virginia earned the youngster two straight starts, though, and it doesn't appear he's ready to relinquish that role. Against Clemson and Georgia Tech, he averaged 10 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and 1.5 assists over 26 minutes of action.
Since he lacks the lift to play above the rim, Meeks has learned to use head fakes to draw fouls and avoid shot-blockers, making him a very efficient weapon in the low post. In addition to that, he has a smooth stroke for range outside the three-point line (though, that hasn't been tested in the collegiate ranks), he's an extremely savvy passer for a big, and everything sticks to his hands like he has two Dysons attached to his forearms.
He's also become a surprisingly effective shot-blocker, despite his poor vertical.
Meeks certainly isn't where he eventually needs to be as far as explosion and stamina are concerned, but he has been the most efficient center on the roster. He is clearly starter material this season and for many years to come.
A little consistency down low is exactly what Roy Williams has been looking for since Tyler Zeller departed.
Earlier this week, I wrote about James Michael McAdoo's motor being the catalyst for his growth. That's what made him so special as a freshman, when he was spelling an injured John Henson, despite his limited skill set.
To this day, his skill set is still limited for a post player, but his God-given talent is beginning to outweigh his deficiencies. That's because he has gone back to the days of non-stop hustling, when his pure athleticism and size became overbearing for his opponents.
In ACC action, McAdoo has shot 43-of-77 from the floor (56 percent) and is averaging 15.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.1 steals and one block per game. Those are some nice numbers for the junior, but he just recently cranked that motor to full throttle.
He's shooting 63 percent from the floor over the last two games and is averaging 19.5 points per game. And when looking at those statistics, consider he only played 18 minutes against Georgia Tech, due to foul trouble. That means his scoring average in those two contests calculates to 31.8 points per 40 minutes played.
Not too shabby.
We've seen similar trends with McAdoo in the past, but this one just feels different. It seems he has finally figured out what it takes to dominate at this level. And becoming more active has allowed him to make more plays and put all of his talents on display.
He still needs some work on his post game, but he has become a more efficient jump-shooter and a better overall defender. With 22 blocks on the season, he is just five shy of his previous two-year total. He's also staying under control most of the time with the rock in his hand, which has lowered his turnover average by 1.2 and increased his shooting percentage by almost 5 percent from last season.
Not only has the improved McAdoo made the team more potent offensively, but his newfound energy seems to be trickling down to the rest of his teammates.
Whether you want to label it a sense of urgency, intensity, tenacity, toughness, passion or fire, the Tar Heels simply can't survive without giving it 100 percent in every game. There is plenty of talent on this team—just not enough developed skill or star power at this time to make up for any lack of effort.
Any of Roy Williams' greatest teams could back off the throttle and still pound the competition when they needed to because they had plenty of experience and star power. This 2013-14 squad has neither.
That isn't to say these individual Tar Heels don't have a bright future; they just aren't quite there yet. They make too many mental mistakes, their skills aren't fully developed, and the poor three-point and free-throw shooting isn't helping matters, either.
You simply can't have that many deficiencies as a team and expect to win playing half-assed basketball.
But the Tar Heels can beat just about any team in the country when they play with a sense of urgency because they do have a lot of talent—especially on the defensive end. When these guys give it their all, it's almost impossible for opposing teams to get in a rhythm on the offensive end.
Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto and Nate Britt are constantly poking balls loose; James Michael McAdoo, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson are swatting shots left and right with hands just flying everywhere on the court. That gets these guys in transition where they really shine with all the athletes and great passers on this squad.
In turn, the Tar Heels' confidence gets boosted while their opponents' morale is slowly destroyed. That's the formula that beat Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky. And that's the formula that dominated Clemson and Georgia Tech in the last two games.
It's tough to say why it took them so long to understand this. It was pretty obvious in early losses to Belmont and UAB—or any of the other five losses, for that matter.
Perhaps with all the youth on this team, they're just used to being able to coast through high school competition. Maybe it's just all the laid-back personalities on the roster. Who knows?
But the message Coach Williams has been sending them about playing with a sense of urgency finally seems to be taking hold. They could have easily overlooked Clemson and Georgia Tech, as they did so many other teams they shouldn't have lost to.
But they didn't. The games weren't perfect, but they played with heart and left it all on the floor.
Maybe a 1-4 start is exactly the reality check these Tar Heels needed. We'll see over the next month or so, as they work their way through the toughest portion of their ACC schedule.
This team is very capable of going on a long winning streak if it maintains this sense of urgency. Don't underestimate these Tar Heels.