Thad: Identity Realized

A week ago in this space I stated that a primary goal of North Carolina in this ACC Tournament would be to restore the team's self-belief.

Mission accomplished. Three memorable games in less than 42 hours amply succeeded in making Senior Night seem like a long, long time ago.

The Tar Heels did fall short of their ultimate goal in Greensboro—winning an unlikely ACC Championship. But it's hard to see how Carolina could have played much better against the Miami Hurricanes in the championship game. The Tar Heels played very close to their maximum level most of the game, and forced Miami to do the same to pull out the win.

It's standard practice in columns after the ACC Tournament (especially a loss) to push ahead as quickly as possible to discussion of the NCAA Tournament. But this year it makes sense to dwell a little bit longer on the events in Greensboro.

The final game itself was, if a close ending short of being called a classic for the ages, certainly the best played and most entertaining game most spectators have seen this year.

The first half was remarkable not only for the high shooting percentages but for the very limited stoppages in play. That means there weren't a lot of fouls (five per team) and weren't a lot of balls being kicked out of bounds (four turnovers per team). On two occasions play extended two minutes or more past the designated TV timeout marker because of uninterrupted play.

Such smooth flow makes for great (if tiring) playing and riveting viewing. It's a credit to not only the skill of the players on display but also two coaches who teach defense the right way and don't want their players constantly bumping cutters.

Sunday's game was a reminder of how beautiful a game college basketball often has been in the past and perhaps will more frequently again be in the future. Both the North Carolina and Miami programs can take pride in being part of it.

What might the Tar Heels have done better to pull out the win? Miami has hands down the best backcourt in the league and it wasn't a surprise that they were able to get good shots consistently and at the same time avoid turnovers. When Carolina mixed the defense up with some zone in the second half, the Hurricanes busted it quickly from the corner.

Ultimately, Carolina paid the price for going small, getting just 18 defensive rebounds and giving up 12 offensive boards. Given how rarely Miami missed, each rebound Carolina failed to secure was magnified. Julian Gamble made a huge difference, especially in the second half.

Offensively, you could perhaps fault the Tar Heels for relying a bit too much on the three-point shot at certain times in the game. But the reality is that only James Michael McAdoo and on occasion P.J. Hairston were capable of scoring anywhere near the basket in this game, and not consistently enough in either case. Reggie Bullock's odd 3-for-14 line from the field reflects a 0-for-6 from two-point range. Getting to the rim for high percentage shots against this Miami team was too tall an order for the small ball Heels.

Great as the Miami game was, the Maryland game was equally exciting as a testament to this team's competitive spirit, holding off a valiant Terrapin effort to reach the final game. It was also encouraging to see Carolina brush aside Florida State convincingly Friday night despite McAdoo's limited minutes due to foul trouble.

Roy Williams exaggerated the point for effect in postgame comments Sunday, but certainly he and his staff can take great satisfaction in how far the Tar Heels have come since their previous loss to Miami in Florida. The Tar Heels have turned from a team that was inconsistent, lacked a clear identity, regularly struggled out of the gates, and too often was blown out into one of the most entertaining and spirited teams in college basketball.

To be sure, it took mid-course change of direction to effect that change, and while perhaps some people actually wrote Carolina off, a great many more simply felt that something needed to change for this team to reach its potential.

In the long term, what was important was not how quickly Roy Williams made the change, but that he made the right change. Williams's solution was different than most people advocated and a far more imaginative departure from his philosophy than most people (including me) thought possible. But it worked, and consequently Carolina is not only dancing this week, it's playing like a team that could stick around for a while.

Now onto the brackets. Carolina has drawn a No. 8 seed and a difficult first round game against Villanova, which would be followed by a game against either Western Kentucky or Kansas.

The Roy vs. Kansas Round Three storyline is sure to draw a lot of attention and high TV ratings if the game comes off. As for the seed itself—is it harsh medicine for the Tar Heels?

On the one hand, Carolina had a final RPI in the 16-17 range, which taken literally makes a case for a No. 5 seed.

On the other hand, Carolina is 0-6 against truly top teams (Miami, Duke, Indiana), including 0-3 since the lineup switch, and owns just two wins (NCSU, UNLV) over teams in the tournament field. That's low by the program's historic standards; in comparison, the last time Carolina entered the field as a No. 8 seed (2000), it had won four games against the field (Maryland, UNLV, Purdue, Miami).

Carolina paid the price for both the relative weakness of the ACC and the inability to score a big-time upset. The brackets will also do little to deter suspicion that the NCAA doesn't mind setting up high-profile 2nd round matchups between top seeds and big-name national powers having relative down years.

The fact of the matter, though, is Carolina can't worry about all that. The Tar Heels are in the tournament, are playing well, and would have had to face a top team sooner or later in any case.

The real danger of Kansas lurking in the same bracket is that it might lead to distracting questions during the week that take Carolina's mind off the task at hand, which is trying to beat Villanova. That would be a big mistake.

But if Carolina can play with the same effort and effectiveness in Kansas City as it did in Greensboro, they will have an excellent chance of getting by the Wildcats—and then, at the very least, giving the Jayhawks one heck of a game.

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.

Inside Carolina Top Stories