Where are the North Carolina Tar Heels of this season, and what have you done with them?
I pose this question because the UNC team featured in the NIT hardly resembles the team from barely a fortnight ago.
The Tar Heels apparently underwent a mass figurative heart transplant in the last week or so.
The Heels have won three games, consecutively. Two of those wins came on the road against respectable opponents in a fiercely partisan environment. Both closely fought games remained tight going into the final minutes, yet UNC did not collapse to the intense pressure and consequently lose, as it had done so in many games before.
Yes, mistakes still riddle UNC’s overall game, but the Tar Heels’ tendency to make unforced errors has decreased in frequency especially during key moments. More importantly, the Heels have clearly demonstrated a newfound resolve to compensate for errors or a stretch of poor play with consistent intensity and focus.
The telling sign of improved play lie in turnover numbers. UNC’s turnovers declined from a seasonal average of 15.4 per game to 12.4 in the NIT. More significantly, the Heels have drastically reduced second half turnovers of their NIT road games.
A lot of the credit goes to Larry Drew II. He seems to have developed a better grasp of running North Carolina’s offense and is playing more assertively than ever, as his game-winning layup over Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado—the NCAA's leading shot blocker—emphatically proves.
Besides the trio of Ws, the Tar Heels have noticeably played with a sense of enjoyment, marked by smiles and vocal collaboration and encouragement on the court.
John Henson continues to impress me with his performance and demeanor. I believe he has been instrumental in pushing his fellow players to step up play on the court while maintaining a positive attitude.
So what gives? Why the sudden change in on-court temperament, which has resulted in some improved play and victorious results?
One thing is clear: UNC no longer plays with any season’s expectations, heavy or light. Those dissipated upon the Heels’ ouster from the ACC Tournament. Without the burden of expectations, the Tar Heels’ performance appears markedly more relaxed and natural.
Clearly, a trip to the NIT may emerge as the best event to happen to the Heels this season. Rather than prolong the season’s woes, UNC has taken this opportunity to play for fun, no strings attached, and seeing players finally have fun on court has translated into fun basketball for spectators despite remaining imperfections in their game.
With two rounds to go against beatable opponents, it is quite possible the Tar Heels can cap this period of redemption by winning a postseason tournament and establish a conclusion to build upon while erasing the taste of bitterness from this year. Sure, the big one got away a long time ago, but the NIT title not only ends UNC’s season on an optimistic note, but it could serve as incentive to work harder and win more.
Upon their NIT invitation, many, yours truly included, expressed doubts about whether the team should even accept the invite because participation characterized by the same dispassionate, disorderly play would only serve as a detriment, further handicapping North Carolina with more mental anguish and sapping what little confidence, if any, UNC had left.
Much to my delight, I hope the Tar Heels have truly saved the best for last to prove us naysayers wrong.