Thad: Improbable Success

What is a basketball team to do when it has already exceeded not only everyone's expectations, but its own as well -- and March has only just gotten started?

It's a question that rarely if ever has been asked in Chapel Hill, but it applies now. You hear all the time in college basketball about "improbable" upset victories and even improbable tournament runs. But "improbable" regular season titles, a contest decided over 16 games, are almost a null category -- until now. Carolina's win over Duke Saturday night -- one of the truly great nights in the long history of the program -- put the exclamation point on a regular season title that is both thoroughly deserved and thoroughly unexpected.

The mystery is not that a team good enough to ring up 51 points in the first half on Duke would also be good enough to win 14 conference games. The mystery is how in the world this Carolina team got so good so fast, after looking not very good quite often early in the season and seriously struggling in early conference games against second-tier opponents like Virginia and Miami. Part of the answer is that Carolina did in fact win those games against Virginia and Miami. The mental toughness and will to win shown as early as the Charlottesville game allowed the team to develop while winning, and did much to quiet doubters and keep internal confidence from dipping.

It also, perhaps most importantly, established the right sort of precedent for how Carolina would handle close games. With last week's win over Florida State, North Carolina is 5-0 in conference games this season decided by a single possession in the final thirty seconds; a sixth win, at Clemson, was almost as tight. You can't do better than that, and you can't overstate the value of pulling those games out -- from the start of the regular season to the end -- has had on this team's psyche.

The second, and perhaps most overlooked, part of the equation is simply that Carolina has been a really, really solid defensive team this season, and apart from the Georgia Tech meltdown has produced consistent performances on that end of the court. In the sixteen league games, UNC has held opponents to just under 40 percent shooting from the field while claiming 70 percent of rebounds on the defensive end and forcing 12.9 turnovers a game. (On the other end of the court, Carolina grabbed 37 percent of available offensive rebounds and turned it over 12.1 times a game.) After Saturday, the analyst Ken Pomeroy has Carolina rated as the third strongest defensive outfit in the nation.

Beyond statistics, Carolina has gotten important steals and blocks leading to points when it mattered repeatedly this year. What was the play of the game Saturday night against Duke? In my view it was Harrison Barnes's strip of Kyle Singler and fast-break bucket to give Carolina its first points of the second half; the Blue Devils had cut the lead to five and seemed to be on the verge of climbing out of their first half hole as quickly as they did in Durham last month. That basket got Carolina on track and Duke never got so close again.

That ability to turn defensive stops into easy scores is critical, because despite spells of brilliance, overall the Tar Heels only have average-to-good offensive statistics. Carolina (conference games only) is just sixth in the league in field goal percentage, ninth in free throw shooting percentage, and dead last in three point shooting percentage.

Offsetting those numbers, however, are a league best 14 offensive rebounds a game, and the second highest assist per game total in the league. Few things in basketball are more satisfying than a sweet assist or an emphatic put back. So when Carolina has managed to score this year, it has often looked good doing so.

That observation leads into the third and most important reason this team is where it is. The different pieces have improved, and they have improved not only as individual pieces but as a unit. A month ago, after Larry Drew left, his former classmate Tyler Zeller confidently stated in the locker room that he believed the Tar Heels had the best chemistry in the nation. At the time, it seemed a brash, even defiant statement.

A month later, the wisdom of Z has become the conventional wisdom nationally. This team has some unusual pieces -- a point guard who is supposedly not that athletic, a shooting guard who doesn't shoot that well, a seven footer who flies down the court to finish breaks, and a power forward who is more of a plastic forward. The most conventional piece of the puzzle in terms of basketball prototypes is, straight out of Iowa, Harrison Barnes.

Yet somehow it has all worked, well enough to win game after game. The players clearly enjoy playing with one another and for Roy Williams, and clearly appreciate that they together have accomplished something truly special over the last two months.

But where does it go from here? Success poses its own challenges, one of which will be to find out just how much hunger Carolina has left in the tank. That's a particular issue this week -- presumably no motivation is required for the NCAA tournament, but how much effort and emotion will Carolina be willing or able to expend this weekend in Greensboro?

Certainly the 2005 team, to take one model, pretty much mailed in the conference tournament that year, after the euphoria of beating Duke on Senior Day. That team always had just one goal, though, to win it all, and some believe that the loss in the ACC Tournament actually helped re-focus the team for its successful run in the nationals.

In 2009, The Toe kept Ty Lawson out of action, and the weekend became about competing hard and representing the jersey well, with little reason for anyone to be upset at the semifinal defeat to Florida State.

Neither of those scenarios fit this year. Indeed, I'm not sure any prior scenario fits this year. But here are three possible motivational scenarios for Carolina to bring its best effort to Greensboro. First, the simple competitive desire to win everything in sight -- that's what propelled Tyler Hansbrough and crew to back-to-back titles in 2007 and 2008. ‘If they are handing out trophies, doggone it let's try to get one.'

Second, the desire to beat or best Duke one more time. Maybe Roy Williams could compile a video clip of Coach K and crew cutting down net after net over the past decade to show on the bus ride to Greensboro. Or maybe the team could be shown two alternative t-shirt designs: one saying simply "2011 ACC Champions, Undisputed" and one saying "2011 ACC Regular Season Champions (Not Officially Recognized by League)." In addition to bragging rights, another win over Duke in a tournament final should close any argument about which school deserves a higher tournament seed in the big dance.

Third, and most elemental, is simply the challenge of beating three decent-to-excellent teams in three days. It's a unique challenge in college ball, and the ACC's current tournament structure makes it even more difficult for the better teams. In days of old, Carolina as top seed might have been able to play on cruise control against last-place Wake Forest in the first round, then buckle down in the semis.

This year, Carolina will have to beat Virginia or Miami just to get to Saturday -- two teams who will well remember how close they came to taking the Tar Heels down earlier in the season. Potentially having to beat Clemson for a third time in the semifinal would be a major challenge. And then there's that Duke team likely there in the final, a team with two top-quality seniors who will be highly motivated to take on Carolina again.

It took an enormous amount of work and character for these Tar Heels to get in position to cut down nets this past Saturday night. It will take a similar amount of effort, in a concentrated time period, for Carolina to be able to do the same thing this upcoming Sunday afternoon. Carolina's chances of pulling it off may rest on the imponderable matter of whether this group of 19- to 21-year-olds can turn attention from thinking about how fun Saturday night was to how fun doing it again would be. But if this group gets its collective head focused, I would not bet against them.

Thad has returned to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He 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 from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

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