Thad: Realizing Potential

It had been a long time coming, but now the basketball world knows what happens when this Carolina team plays for 40 minutes with supreme focus, controlled aggression, admirable composure—while hitting a reasonable number of perimeter shots.

The result, for one Saturday night in Durham at least, was the sort of basketball that this writer and others envisioned Carolina might aspire to play this season: beautiful basketball.

That assessment is by no means a partisan one. Those were the very words—"beautiful basketball"—used by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in his postgame comments after Carolina's 88-70 victory in Cameron. Coach K used other words too, like "efficient" and "great," but "beautiful" seems the most apt description for Carolina's complete performance in securing the ACC regular season title.

Beautiful basketball from this Tar Heel team? As the late Etta James might have put it, "At laaaaast." There have been plenty of occasions this season when the Tar Heels have grinded out victories while shooting 40 percent or less, earning wins without making anyone too excited to go back and re-watch the tape.

Saturday was different. The Carolina Basketball Museum needs to play the video of the first half of Saturday's game on continual loop for at least the next month. So does the Roy Williams display at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. And when Williams finally hangs it up some point down the line, this game needs to recognized as a career highlight, a day when his basketball philosophy was fully realized in a high-stakes setting against a quality opponent.

Part of what was different was the fully serious, all-business mentality Carolina displayed throughout the game. Williams says he doesn't look at the scoreboard much during the bulk of games, and in the first half at least his team played as if they weren't looking either. Quite properly, the mentality was: play as aggressively as possible, sustain good play for as long as possible, and in the process build a big as lead as possible.

Against this Duke team, Carolina knew all too well, you don't want to let matters come down to the final moments when a clutch shot, a whistle, or simple bad luck could affect the outcome of the game.

After the lead peaked at 26 points early in second half, Duke made the expected rally. A third foul on Tyler Zeller early in the half softened the interior defense, allowing the Plumlees to score effectively in the second half, and eventually the Blue Devils hit a couple of outside shots.

Even so, largely thanks to some stellar play from John Henson, Carolina was still up 16 with 6:36 to play when three consecutive miscues—Harrison Barnes fouling Seth Curry for his 4th foul, Zeller going over the back for his 4th, and a too-quick shot from Reggie Bullock—made the game interesting (or, depending on your point of view, scary) for a couple of minutes. Duke had opportunities to cut the lead to single digits, at a time in which Carolina had Barnes and Zeller on the bench.

Duke missed those shots, and then Kendall Marshall hit one of the bigger shots of the year from 17 feet late in the shot clock to stop the run. Barnes added the final dagger a few minutes later with his three, and Carolina was able to spend the last two minutes of the game savoring every second rather than nervously sweating it out.

Mental toughness—starting with Marshall, who turned in another masterful performance—was the building block of the victory in Durham, as it needs to be of the rest of the season. The other building blocks were vastly improved perimeter defense, rebounding dominance, and getting positive production from all five spots on the court.

Coming into Saturday's game, Carolina's wing trio of Barnes, Bullock, and P.J. Hairston were shooting a combined 38 percent in ACC play, including just 30 percent from the three point arc. But in Cameron the trio combined for 12-26 shooting, including three three-point baskets. Those aren't eye-popping numbers either, but the contrast between how the Tar Heels look when Barnes is playing at his efficient best and Bullock is making a steady contribution and when one or both players struggle is striking.

Similarly, Marshall's assertiveness in finding his own shot, as in the win in Raleigh, gives Carolina a new dimension offensively—and of course, makes life easier for Zeller and Henson inside. The fact that Marshall didn't convert all his driving layups is in a sense immaterial—his taking it to the basket put pressure on the defense and helped establish a high tempo.

The question now, of course, is where Carolina goes from here. Coming into the year, it was clear this was a very talented and experienced team that would do well in the ACC. Talk of "beautiful basketball" and sweeping the league was aimed at setting the bar high enough to challenge this team. Other challenges intervened, however, and as it turned out "simply" duplicating the remarkable performance of 2011—going 14-2 and winning the regular season—was a significant and meaningful accomplishment.

But there is still room to take things the extra yard beyond the accomplishments of 2011. That team finished, of course, 16-3 in all league games, and this year's team has a chance to make that 17-2 by winning the program's first ACC Tournament in four years, in the process securing a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed.

Last year at this time, the legitimate question was whether after all the drama of the season, from player departures to close game after close game, Carolina had anything left in the tank at the end of the regular season. While Carolina did go on to win five postseason games (including three nailbiters), in truth the team never again reached the level of performance it achieved in the regular season finale against Duke in Chapel Hill.

This year feels different—or at least it should. The players need to see the win in Cameron not as simple payback, or as a crowning accomplishment in itself, but as a model for the kind of basketball this team is capable of playing and needs to be playing the rest of the year, with no letup and limited lapses.

This is not to say postseason games will always play out as favorably as the script from Durham. Other teams Carolina may face going forward, including Duke, may shoot the ball better than the Blue Devils did on makeable shots on Saturday. What Carolina can control is its focus and determination.

That was a championship mentality on display Saturday night. If it can be sustained the next several weeks, Carolina's players could be in for the month of their lives.

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 from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

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