North Carolina Gets Back on Track for ACC Title with Blowout Win over Miami

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 20, 2016

North Carolina's Brice Johnson (11) reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Duke in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Gerry Broome/Associated Press

North Carolina has more than enough talent to be the best college basketball team in the country, and that potential was back on display against Miami on Saturday afternoon.

A win at No. 5 North Carolina would have put No. 11 Miami firmly in the conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but it was the Tar Heels who made a massive statement with a 96-71 rout of the Hurricanes.

Before the game began, CBS' Ian Eagle and Bill Raftery were the final contributors to the dayslong narrative that North Carolina might suffer from a bit of a hangover after its letdown against Duke on Wednesday night.

It's safe to say those fears were unwarranted, even though this remains one of the most Jekyll-and-Hyde teams in recent memory.

The Tar Heels blew out Miami less than one week after doing the same to Pittsburgh. They've also had offensive outbursts against Maryland, UCLA, Davidson and Florida State—which suggests this is the type of team that could drop 100 points on anyone in the country.

But the Tar Heels have disappointed as often as they've impressed. The big wins over Maryland and Davidson came after disappointing losses to Northern Iowa and Texas. North Carolina lost its first two games in February and darn near made it three losses in a row before barely escaping with a win against hapless Boston College.

And after its loss to the Blue Devils, everyone chimed in with their justifications for selling stock.

"Even though the Tar Heels have all those seniors and all that talent, I can't talk myself into picking this team to win the national championship," Matt Norlander of CBS Sports wrote. "There have been too many slip-ups, and while Brice Johnson will be a second-team All-American at worst, the collective here is not playing up to its potential."

Zac Ellis of Sports Illustrated asked the question that most were thinking after watching UNC shoot so poorly down the stretch against Duke: "North Carolina has the talent to compete with anyone in the country, but does [head coach Roy] Williams' crew have the discipline to close big games come tournament time?"

Those who weren't writing articles about the suddenly troublesome Tar Heels were offering their thoughts on Twitter:

But less than 72 hours after raising questions about their mental toughness, the Tar Heels drove a freight train through the Hurricanes. By the time they finally took their foot off the gas, they led by 38despite yet another lackluster outing from Marcus Paige (seven points and two assists).

All of a sudden, pundits were singing a different tune about the team that was back in sole possession of first place in the ACC standings:

Per usual, Johnson was the star of the show.

He finished with 16 points and 15 rebounds, but more important than the numbers was the fire he brought early in a game that was shaping up to feature another disappointing defensive effort from one of the nation's most talented rosters. In a span of 41 seconds that began with the score tied at 13, Johnson had three rebounds and an emphatic slam dunk in addition to drawing a pair of fouls.

Less than three minutes later, the Tar Heels were up eight and never looked back.

That's what you need from your senior leaders in order to win a national championship, and it's what North Carolina was lacking for the final 12 minutes of Wednesday's loss to the Blue Devils. We may never find out whether there was actually something wrong with Johnson's wrist, but he completely disappeared down the stretch of that game as the guards missed jumper after jumper.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Against the 'Canes, though, he put the team on his back.

Of course, it didn't hurt that his supporting cast showed up for this one.

Excluding the three-point attempts that backups Stilman White and Spenser Dalton missed with the game well out of reach, the Tar Heels shot a combined 9-of-17 from three-point rangequite the opposite of their collective 1-of-13 performance three days ago.

And when this team is hitting some triples, it's not even a fair fight. North Carolina has made at least seven three-pointers in just eight games this season, but it is 8-0 in those games with an average final score of 90.9-69.3.

That shouldn't be misconstrued as a request for more Carolina three-point attempts, though. The Tar Heels entered the day shooting 30.9 percent from three-point range and 54.3 percent inside the arc. Given those percentages, North Carolina's average two-point attempt was worth 0.153 more points than its average three-point attempt, according to KenPom.comand that doesn't even include the extra points earned at the free-throw line by initiating contact in the paint.

We need to note, though, that this team actually can shoot from time to timemuch like the 2012-13 Louisville team that won a national championship despite shooting just 15-of-51 (29.4 percent) from beyond the arc in its first four tournament games.

But with North Carolina, talent has never been the concern. We know four players on this roster have the ability to make it rain from downtown, and another four are borderline unguardable inside the arc. It's why the Tar Heels were the preseason No. 1 team in the country and why they remain one of the top candidates to win the national championship.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

The reason we're terrified to pick them to win it all is their inconsistent effort.

Eight players on this roster can score in double figures on any given nightsix did so against Miamibut far too often, just one or two show up on offense and even fewer show up on defense.

When fully engaged like they were against the Hurricanes, the Tar Heels could win the national championship—and win every game along the way by double digits. But we're lucky to get "Firing on All Cylinders" North Carolina once every six gameslet alone for six in a row.

Let's forget about the tournament for another three weeks, though, because North Carolina has one heck of a gauntlet yet to come, closing the season with a home game against Syracuse and three road games against North Carolina State, Virginia and Duke.

The Tar Heels have the talent to go 4-0 in those games to win the ACC and get a stranglehold on a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

We'll just have to wait to see whether they feel like playing that well.


Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.