Through the majority of this 2013-14 season, we could never predict which North Carolina Tar Heels team would show up from game to game. Losing P.J. Hairston and having Leslie McDonald as a spectator for nine games forced the rest of the returning Heels to grow up fast. But that would not come without some serious growing pains.
However, with five straight ACC victories in the bag—all by double digits—it would appear UNC is finally getting over that hump and becoming a well-oiled machine.
One of the greatest contributors to this turn of events has been the emergence of an energetic and emotional James Michael McAdoo. Through two-and-a-half years at North Carolina, McAdoo showed few signs of becoming an emotional leader. He seemed to coast through games with little animation and few signs of the motor that garnered so much hype as a freshman.
Knowing what he was capable of being, it was downright frustrating to watch at times.
But something seemed to click with the junior in late January. Suddenly, he became aggressive going to the rim, rarely shying away from contact as we had witnessed him do so many times over the years. If he could reach the rim, he was throwing it down no matter what.
His aggressiveness has shown in the stat lines over the last five games, too. He's averaging 17 points and 8.2 rebounds over that span.
And for a guy who has struggled with his free-throw shooting all season long, a perfect 6-of-6 performance from the stripe against Notre Dame may have been exactly the confidence boost the junior needed.
He has also been displaying emotion we haven't really seen before. He gets amped up about every big play he or the team makes. With an ear-to-ear smile, it finally looks like he is enjoying being on the court.
That energy and emotion has carried over to the rest of the team. Now the Tar Heels are coming out to fight each and every game, just as they did when the fiery Hairston was inserted into the startling lineup last season.
All it takes is one guy to re-energize an entire team.
McAdoo isn't the only one who has grown up this season, though. The steady growth of J.P. Tokoto has also played a major role in this winning streak.
With his quickness and range, Tokoto has become the Tar Heels' best on-ball defender, regularly taking on the opposing team's best offensive weapon and shutting them down. In the last three contests, he has racked up 11 steals and currently leads the team with 1.7 per game on the season.
He's also developed into a strong scorer in the paint by refining his handles and making use of his hang time to square up the shot in heavy traffic. And though his outside shooting leaves much to be desired for a wing, he has improved his form and will bury a trey on occasion.
Going 7-of-25 behind the arc may not sound particularly great, but it's a lot better than his 1-of-11 shooting from last season. His lack of offensive pop has been made up for by everything else he does on the court, though. He averages 2.7 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 0.7 blocks to go with his nine points per game.
Great teams aren't made up entirely of elite scorers. They need someone like Tokoto to do the dirty work, and he's pretty darn good at it.
Then there is Brice Johnson, who has been torched by Coach Williams many times for his lack of effort on the defensive end. But over the last two games, Johnson has been working his butt off to stay glued to his man and avoid those frustrating mental lapses.
The sophomore forward had three steals and two blocks over just 21 minutes against the Fighting Irish this past Saturday.
Johnson has always been an elite scorer. He's averaging one point every two minutes played on 53.8 percent shooting. Over the last two games, he's 12-of-15 from the floor.
It's been said that if Easy B could ever match his defensive efforts with his offensive production, the Tar Heels would have something truly special. It seems that day may be right around the corner.
We can't forget McDonald, who struggled to fit in after having his suspension lifted. But the fifth-year senior seems to be turning his season around. Beyond his 13-point average over the last five games, his stat lines aren't very indicative of his contributions.
He's still in a bit of a slump on the perimeter, where the Tar Heels could really use his help. But he is driving to the basket and finishing much better than he was in late December and early January. He's also been a big factor in the transition game, whether he is dropping dimes or scoring the rock.
When the Heels are on a fast break, it's almost a guarantee that McDonald will be in the mix.
Finally, there is Marcus Paige, whose growth has been evident from Game 1 this season. He did hit a pretty rough patch for a while, though. In the Tar Heels' last loss, the sophomore finished with just nine points on 4-of-14 shooting, including a 1-of-6 performance from downtown.
In the five games since, he is averaging 18 points and six assists per game. He's also found his stroke again behind the arc, burying 44.4 percent of his attempts over that span.
It seems the contributions of all the other Tar Heels have lifted a huge weight off his shoulders. Now, he is able to assert control over the game instead of feeling the need to score in bunches every night.
Without a doubt, the maturity of these Tar Heels, in particular, has had a tremendous impact on their current winning streak. It's been a tough season to watch at times, but it appears those growing pains may finally be in the rearview for these returners and the team as a whole.
We'll find out for sure after UNC and Duke go head-to-head on Wednesday night.