There were many discussions in the offseason regarding which player would be the North Carolina Tar Heels' "X-factor" in 2013-14. From James Michael McAdoo to Joel James, just about every Tar Heels name was tossed into the debate. But as UNC powered through their most recent three ACC games in dominant fashion, we learned that the answer isn't an individual player.
The secret to the Tar Heels' success has simply been their intensity level.
Since losing to Virginia a couple weeks ago, North Carolina has been playing with a sense of urgency that has only been present in a handful of its games this season. There was the first half in the opener against Oakland, followed by games against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky.
Aside from those games, the Tar Heels never looked ready to play until attempting to make a comeback in the final minutes of their seven losses.
It almost made you want to chase these guys down the floor with a cattle prod. One can only imagine how Roy Williams felt as he watched his players coast through those games.
But a 1-4 start in the ACC seemed to change their mentality entirely. UNC found itself in desperation mode for the final 13 games of the conference slate—similar to how it found itself in the waning minutes of those inevitable losses.
Time was no longer a luxury.
While intensity clearly played a factor in the shellacking of Clemson and Georgia Tech, we did see McAdoo play arguably the most efficient 49 minutes of his Carolina career. In addition, the Tar Heels shot 49.6 percent from the floor, 41.9 percent from downtown and totaled 39 assists on 59 made field goals over that span.
Those were some solid offensive games to go with their defensive efforts.
That was not the case on Saturday against rival NC State. The only thing they could hang their hats on was one of their most impressive defensive performances of the year—not to mention a season-high 20 points from Leslie McDonald, who finally seems to be getting back on track.
For a good portion of the game, the Carolina offense was awful. Even dunks—quite possibly more than I have ever seen by a team in one game—were getting rejected by the rim.
The Tar Heels were relentless on the offensive boards, hauling in 22 of their 52 rebounds on their own side of the floor. But then they'd miss on second, third and sometimes fourth opportunities to put the ball through the cylinder.
The team shot 40.6 percent from the floor and 25 percent behind the arc, making just three of its 12 attempts from distance.
What made all the difference was effort—especially in the first half. The Tar Heels defense absolutely smothered the Wolfpack, who didn't make their second bucket until the 13:56 mark. If Carolina didn't get sloppy on offense trying to run up the score, it probably would've had a 30-point lead going into the half.
For every miscue on offense, the Tar Heels seemed to have an answer on the defensive end. That is not only what kept them in the game. It's also what had them running up the score despite a relatively ugly offensive performance.
One could also argue that free throws made the difference, as that is usually the first thing folks point to in all the frustratingly close losses this season. The Heels shot 25-of-33 from the stripe (75.8 percent) against NC State, marking the second game in a row they have eclipsed the 70 percent mark.
That's great news for a team that's currently shooting 62.6 percent from the charity stripe. But it isn't the reason the Tar Heels won. Considering the margin was 14 points, they could've shot 36.4 percent from the line and still have come out victorious.
And for those who just want to be argumentative and say it's because NC State is awful: Consider that the Wolfpack have the ACC's leading scorer in T.J. Warren and they had a better record than UNC going into the game. Better yet, consider four of the Tar Heels' seven losses were to Belmont, UAB, Wake Forest and Miami.
Making more than 50 percent of their free throws (45-of-90) in those four contests certainly would have made a difference, especially considering they lost by an average of 4.8 points. But if the Tar Heels played with any sort of passion and intensity, the free throws wouldn't have mattered—just like this past Saturday.
If you recall, Carolina allowed Belmont to jack up 37 three-point attempts that were mostly uncontested. Against UAB, the bigger, better team was out-rebounded 52-37. That doesn't happen with effort.
I've been saying it all season long: When these Tar Heels come to play, they're one of the toughest in the nation because of their defense. When they don't, they simply don't have enough pop on the offensive end to make up for it.
There's your X-factor, folks.