Thad: Setting The Bar High

It's been a quarter century since a North Carolina Tar Heel team ran the table to an undefeated campaign in the ACC regular season.

Since then, Carolina has won (counting ties) nine regular season titles, including an impressive run of five titles (four outright) in the last seven seasons under Roy Williams. But all of those seasons have had at least two blemishes, and indeed in most of those years hardly anyone involved thought going undefeated was a reasonable aspiration.

This year, it may be, though the history just cited shows just how difficult and rare an accomplishment it would be. It's not crazy to think this Carolina team should enter the ACC regular season with the full intention of winning each and every game.

Indeed, setting such a high aspiration might well be what is needed to keep this team completely focused over the next two months. Recent history suggests that it's not the games everyone knows will be the biggest worries—the matchups with Duke, or the annual trip to Raleigh, or this year the games with a nationally ranked Virginia team that is oozing confidence at the moment.

None of those contests will be easy of course, but Williams may face his toughest preparation task in reminding his charges that they can't take any of the other games on the schedule for granted, either. That includes the ACC opener against Boston College, a club with a losing record, in what on paper looks like a mismatch.

The two early losses to UNLV and Kentucky have left a lingering impression among some observers that somehow this Tar Heel team is not where it should be. But if you look at performances in the prolonged recent home stretch, it's difficult to know what more Carolina fans could have reasonably expected.

To be sure, at times there were lapses in concentration, dry offensive spells, runs conceded against weaker opponents. The game against Nicholls had little redeeming value other than perhaps Carolina's defense. But that's college basketball—very few games, even between mismatched opponents, consist of one team starting on top and getting a bigger and bigger lead all the way to the final buzzer. And as Roy Williams acknowledged in postgame comments Sunday, it's difficult for college players to maintain full throttle all of the time when the game itself is not competitive.

The start of ACC play provides an opportunity to re-focus everyone's attention. On the court the focal points for improvement remain the same as they were a few weeks ago—getting better and more consistent defensively and on the backboards, being more efficient in converting inside scoring chances, and shooting well from the line.

Individually, most of the players have been playing their normal game and performing at a proficient level (in future columns I'll be breaking down some of the details of how the starters' individual games have evolved). All that needs to be said right now is that if you enjoy seeing John Henson hitting turnaround 15 footers, enjoy it while you can.

Two slight question marks concern the freshmen P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo. Hairston struggled from the field in the game against a tough Long Beach State team (Reggie Bullock picked up the slack that night with a brilliant performance), and in general had not been shooting the ball quite as well from outside over most of the holiday period. It was encouraging to see Hairston return to form from deep against Monmouth (hitting 4-of-9 threes), and that will need to continue if Carolina is to reach its potential. The good news is that Hairston doesn't seem to be the kind of player who is going to let a tough stretch affect his confidence, or adversely impact his shot selection.

McAdoo is producing 18 points and 11 rebounds per 40 minutes played, and it would be grossly unfair to label the start of his college career as disappointing. But there's certainly room for improvement too, since McAdoo's offensive efficiency is still a couple of notches below what Carolina has come to expect from its inside players. McAdoo is shooting just under 43 percent from the field. (By comparison, John Henson is shooting 56 percent from the field and Tyler Zeller 52 percent.) At times McAdoo displays a nice touch from short range, but the mid-range shot needs more work to develop consistency. This will likely come in time—already McAdoo has shown improvement in free throw form, hitting 14 of his last 17 attempts in the past four games after making just 15 of his first 31 attempts as a Tar Heel.

Time, experience and practice are the recipe for McAdoo's continued development. If he continues to shoot free throws well, he'll be a very effective sub even if the mid-range game doesn't reach full fruition this season. Still, of all the players on the roster, McAdoo perhaps has the highest unrealized upside as a college player. The guess here is that by March quite a bit more of McAdoo's upside will be realized, making Carolina an even stronger team.

In the meantime, Carolina simply needs to maintain its focus as a unit, take every opponent seriously, and set a goal suitable for a relatively veteran team coming off a 14-2 league mark in 2011: No slip ups.

Sure, Carolina could play somewhat inconsistently over the next 16 games, still probably win 12 or 13 and put up a respectable record, maybe even a title, and there'd still be hope the team could get it together for the big dance. But this team should set a higher bar for itself over the next couple of months: try to win them all.


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.


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