Saturday's game against Virginia Tech was a strange one for North Carolina. The Tar Heels obviously started the game terribly, and ended the first half on a discouraging note.
Then Carolina made a strong push in the second half, but missed several opportunities to take the first lead of the game before Brice Johnson's putback with just nine and a half minutes to play. Carolina then missed several chances in the last two minutes of regulation, including Jackson Simmons coming up long on two free throws and Marcus Paige's errant pass on Carolina's last halfcourt possession.
Despite all those problems, and despite Tech having the ball with a chance to win at the end, this never felt like a game Carolina was going to lose. Part of this was the generally solid defensive effort, part of it was Carolina's rebounding dominance, and part of it was home court advantage.
But part of it too was a growing confidence in this team and its individual players that they have learned how to fight through difficult circumstances and substandard performances and still win tightly contested games.
The most obvious example Saturday was Marcus Paige. Paige started the game well, hitting three 3-point shots in the first half, then struggled down the stretch, and finally recovered to hit two critical field goals in overtime. The freshman was unfazed by his miscues at the end of regulation, but just kept on playing.
The strong performance by Carolina in overtime, again paradoxically, should lift the team's confidence more than scraping by with an ugly two-point regulation win would have. Likewise, the strong outing at Boston College, and the refusal of the Tar Heels to let the injury to P.J. Hairston knock them off task, is further evidence that the team is growing in mental toughness.
Yet another sign of progress: Carolina used shooting (48% from the field, 54% from 3) to get the lead against Boston College, and won a high-scoring game. Against Virginia Tech, Carolina did not shoot well from the perimeter, with Reggie Bullock having real struggles from the field, as did Leslie McDonald in his return. What kept the Heels in it was relentlessness on the boards. Carolina grabbed 19 offensive rebounds, or 44 percent of the rebounds on that end of the court. Five players had at least two offensive boards. It was a true team effort, and a good sign that the Heels have figured out that if you can't win one way, you have to try to win it another.
Finally, there is reason to be very encouraged at the individual performance of James Michael McAdoo on Saturday. He had five turnovers, but from the field he had one of his most efficient games as a Tar Heel—8-12, plus 6-9 from the line for 22 points. McAdoo has the ability to catch the ball in the high post area and free himself for a shot at almost any time. The problem has been that he doesn't make enough of the resultant 10-12 foot jumpers.
That weakness is reason alone McAdoo shouldn't be considering a leap to the league at this time—he needs another summer focused on improving his consistency and touch shooting in a 10-15 foot radius around the basket, both going straight up and going off of one quick dribble. That's a move very few college defenders are going to be able to prevent McAdoo from executing, but it's for naught if he doesn't make the shot on a more regular basis.
The strange week past thus made clear two things: First, P. J. Hairston is very important to this team, and second, the team is now mature enough to handle a good bit of adversity within a game context.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels have crept up into a tie for 3rd in the league standings, and into the top 35 nationally of both the RPI (#33) and the Sagarin ratings (#27). That's what winning five of six league games will do for you.
But skepticism about this Carolina team will remain until it shows it can at least be competitive with Miami, Duke and North Carolina State. Saturday's trip to Miami offers a major test.
In the meantime, Carolina cannot overlook a rapidly improving Wake Forest team. I saw the Demon Deacons in person in December and was immediately struck at how well the team performed with five freshmen on the court. Those rookies are now more seasoned, and along with their veterans already have an impressive win over State and a strong showing against Duke to their credit in the last two weeks. Wake has been markedly less impressive on the road, but if Carolina lets the Deacons hang around anything can happen.
Carolina's resilience Saturday served it well. But the Tar Heels can't continue to fall behind early and expect the "Get Out of Jail" card to continue to be there. You usually only get one of those per season. Instead, Carolina needs an impressive performance to springboard into the return game at Miami with the confidence and composure that befits a would-be NCAA Tournament team.
Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.