UNC Basketball

UNC Basketball: 5 Questions for Tar Heels' Home Stretch in ACC Play

Todd SalemContributor IIIFebruary 24, 2014

UNC Basketball: 5 Questions for Tar Heels' Home Stretch in ACC Play

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Twenty-seven games are already in the books for North Carolina. With 20 wins and seven losses, UNC sees itself in prime position to reach the NCAA tournament after a rocky start to conference play.

    The team's recent hot streak pushed it from unranked last week to No. 19 in the most recent AP Top 25 poll that came out Monday. The Heels ironically sit just behind Michigan State at No. 18 and Kentucky at No. 17, two teams they've already beaten this season.

    However, even with all the elite wins and the hot play recently, questions still remain for UNC finishing out the season. With four games remaining before the conference tournament, there is still work to be done if UNC hopes to get where it wants to be.

How Long Can the Winning Streak Last?

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    North Carolina has won nine consecutive games. Its last loss came way back on January 20 at Virginia.

    Throughout the five weeks of this winning streak, Carolina beat the conference's second-best defensive team as far as opponents’ points per game (Clemson).

    The Heels beat the ACC's leading shooter and scorer (T.J. Warren of NC State).

    They took down the conference's second-best team according to Sports-Reference's Simple Rating System (Pittsburgh).

    They also beat the team that SRS marks as the very best team in the ACC (Duke).

    The last four games on Carolina's regular-season schedule are as follows: at NC State, at Virginia Tech, vs. Notre Dame and at Duke.

    Carolina should be a heavy favorite in each of those first three contests. Even on the road, NC State and VT pose little threat to UNC if the Heels are playing with full effort. The same goes for the March 3 game against ND.

    Assuming there is no looking ahead happening or complacency setting in, UNC should be able to extend its winning streak to a stellar 12 games heading into the season's final contest, March 8 against the Blue Devils. 

    Of course, everyone is familiar with what North Carolina is capable of...so those three wins are no guarantee.

    In the new, expanded Atlantic Coast Conference, all 15 teams will make the conference tournament. However, getting into the top four is paramount.

    The bottom six teams (seeds 10 through 15) will play each other in the first round on March 12.  The winners of those three games, along with seeds five through nine, will all play in the second round the following day. Thus, the top four seeds in the conference receive two byes in the ACC tournament, not playing until March 14, possibly against a team that has already slugged through two straight days of games.

    Right now, the ACC standings look like this:

Can UNC Hold onto a Top Four Seed in the ACC?

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    In the new, expanded Atlantic Coast Conference, all 15 teams will make the conference tournament. However, getting into the top four is paramount.

    The bottom six teams (seeds 10 through 15) will play each other in the first round on March 12.  The winners of those three games, along with seeds five through nine, will all play in the second round the following day. Thus, the top four seeds in the conference receive a double-bye in the ACC tournament, not playing until March 14, possibly against a team that has already slugged through two straight days of games.

    Right now, the ACC standings look like this:

    2013-14 ACC STANDINGS

    TEAMCONFGBOVR
    Virginia14-1--23-5
    Syracuse12-21.525-2
    Duke11-4322-6
    North Carolina10-43.520-7
    Pittsburgh8-65.520-7
    Clemson8-65.517-9

    Virginia and Syracuse are a few games ahead of UNC and both have the head-to-head edge over the Tar Heels as well.

    Duke sits just half a game ahead, having played one more contest thus far. However, Carolina has already beaten the Blue Devils, and the two teams still have one more matchup to go.

    The key though are the teams resting just below North Carolina. Both Pittsburgh and Clemson are two full games behind the Heels with just four games remaining in the season. Also, UNC beat the Panthers and the Tigers during its nine-game winning streak, giving it the tiebreaker over each.

    It seems highly unlikely, especially considering Carolina's remaining schedule, that it could drop anywhere below the fourth seed in the ACC, which is excellent news for the fans and players.

Can the Guards Stay Hot?

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    It has been a struggle shooting the basketball this entire season for Leslie McDonald. Also, team MVP Marcus Paige has gone through some extended shooting slumps of his own, namely back in January.

    However, it is important to watch the teams resting just below North Carolina. Both Pittsburgh and Clemson are two full games behind the Heels with just four games remaining in the season. Also, UNC beat the Panthers and the Tigers during its nine-game winning streak, giving it the tiebreaker over each.

    For North Carolina, a team that dominates the boards inside but struggles to get consistent scoring from the outside, guard play is of the utmost importance to its long-term success.

    Fortunately for the pair, the upcoming schedule should be in their favor. NC State, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Duke are the four remaining games on the schedule. Three of those four teams are in the bottom half of the conference in field-goal percentage defense. The only exception is VT, who ranks sixth.

    All four teams rank eighth or lower in rebound margin on the season, meaning UNC should see a number of second-chance opportunities in these games. As basketball aficionados know, one of the hardest shots to defend is a kick-out three off an offensive rebound because backcourt defenders don't stay tight to their men once a shot goes up.

    Three of the four opponents left also rank in the bottom half of the ACC in scoring defense, with Duke the lone exception, ranking seventh.

    And finally, having already played three of these four teams, UNC is a combined 3-0 in those contests. Obviously, no team will make things easy for UNC guards, especially Paige, but the end-of-the-season slate looks favorable for continued hot shooting.

     

Will Isaiah Hicks Develop into Anything Useful This Season?

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    It is rather impressive that UNC is having such a successful season getting little to no production from its top freshman recruit. Isaiah Hicks was that guy, a 5-star power forward, ranking eighth in the country at his position according to ESPN recruit rankings.

    Just imagine where Duke would be if it wasn't getting anything out of its top recruit.

    With Hicks, the talent is there. He is an athletic weapon, capable of playing either forward spot and guarding his position well. However, nothing has clicked for him yet this season.

    Coach Roy Williams is playing Hicks just 7.7 minutes per game. Hicks has topped the 12-minute mark in a game just twice all year and not since conference play began. Even in a blow-out, runaway victory last time out against Wake Forest, Hicks saw just 10 minutes of game action and failed to score a single point.

    It seems as though this is what Hicks will be as a freshman. He will come in for small doses of games, defend at the small forward spot, just giving other guys a blow.

    Hopefully he can turn his game into something resembling what Brice Johnson did. Johnson is putting up 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds on 55.5 percent shooting as a sophomore. However, last year, his freshman year was reminiscent of Hicks'. He produced very little and played very little, grabbing just 10.6 minutes of action per game.

    Even if Hicks having an important moment in the 2013-14 season is a long shot, a Brice Johnson-like jump from his freshman year to his sophomore year would be a welcoming sight in 2014-15.

Is James Michael McAdoo Capable of Leading This Team to a Victory?

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Everyone accepts the fact that James Michael McAdoo is not going to become a full-fledged college basketball star as some predicted. He is not going to reach that potential some outlined for him after his freshman season at Carolina, where he was venturing into NBA Draft lottery projections before announcing his desire to return to UNC.

    However, he is certainly the second-best option on this Heels team: Someone who can flood the box score if he is feeling it. He's already topped 20 points in a game six times this season.

    The rightful knock against McAdoo's game though is his inability to take over. He is not a dominant post player. While playing power forward, McAdoo is more of a face-up shooter or driver. He has the athleticism to get past most defenders and can shoot mid-range jumpers surprisingly well for someone who struggles so much from the foul line.

    Yet if Marcus Paige, the team's leading scorer, is off, McAdoo doesn't seem capable of filling the void. Simply put, if Paige is off, the team usually loses, whereas the same is not the case if the situations are reversed.

    There have been only three games this season where Paige has failed to crack 10 points. They all came back in January, against Wake Forest, Miami and Virginia respectively. North Carolina went on to lose all three games. While McAdoo was solid in all three, he failed to pick up his game to account for his teammate's failure.

    On the other hand, McAdoo has failed to reach double figures five times, including that Florida State foul-fest where he ended with zero points. In those games, the team went 4-1, and Paige averaged 20.8 points per game, even pouring in 32 in the Heels' upset victory over then No. 3 Louisville.

    It is no secret that Marcus Paige has been a better player this season than McAdoo. However, the hope from a second banana is that he can carry a team for spurts or for certain contests when the alpha dog is sputtering. That has not been the case this season, and McAdoo doesn't seem capable of doing so.

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