Earlier in the season, one often had the thought that Carolina fans entering Purgatory will likely be forced to endure watching videos of this team shoot free throws. Now, Carolina fans have grown almost fond of the graphic shown every single game reminding the world this is the worst foul shooting team Chapel Hill has seen since (at least) 1953-54.
Earlier in the season, one wondered how a team with not much three point shooting and an inability to score at the foul line could possibly get enough points to win. Now, observers have come to expect that Carolina's strengths in taking care of the basketball, offensive rebounding, and individual athleticism—punctuated by occasional bursts of decent shooting—will somehow prove enough to get the job done.
Earlier in the season, it was easy to question the heart and focus of a team that could blow a late home lead to Belmont, come out a step slow in the ACC opener at Wake Forest, and put up an outright stinker in the home league opener versus Miami. Now one expects to see Tar Heels diving on the floor, coming up with key rebounds, blocked shots and energy plays.
Earlier in the season, it was tempting to write off 2013-14 as yet another casualty of the string of unfortunate and depressing events that have engulfed the athletics department and the university as a whole in recent years. Having a top returning player be ruled ineligible is as contrary to the historical expectations surrounding this program as it gets. But now fans have witnessed a series of stunning performances from Marcus Paige, a player whose leadership and persona on and off the court are enough to rekindle faith in the Carolina way for even the deepest cynic.
To be sure, there isn't anything all that magical about the component parts of this turnaround season. Every player in the rotation has improved their individual games, with J.P. Tokoto perhaps showing the most rapid progress. The team has established a clear identity in rebounding dominance, defensive effort, and running when possible. In critical situations, Carolina has the right guys (Paige, James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson) taking most of the shots.
What is the proper way to describe a team of imperfect parts, with some glaring collective weaknesses, that still manages to win consistently?
Among other things, "well-coached."
It would be misleading to say Roy Williams doesn't get a lot of credit. The Hall of Famer gets plenty of love and respect from regional and national media.
The crowd gets tougher closer to home. That's partly understandable, because Carolina fans have such high standards and because Carolina fans pay close attention and feel keenly every little bump in the road.
But it's also partly because even now Williams is consistently underrated as not just a "program manager" who assembles great talent but a great in-season coach who is flexible enough to find multiple ways to win.
Consider the evidence: in three of the past four seasons, the Tar Heels have struggled on the court and/or had major off-court issues. In each case—from point guards leaving to radical lineup changes to ineligible players—Williams has managed to get things turned around and get his teams to play quality basketball.
Stability of character is a hallmark of Roy Williams's life and his personality as a coach. The ability to connect with his players is the great constant in Williams's coaching career. But stability does not mean inflexibility. Far from being a one-trick pony or inflexible coach, Williams has been able to adjust to adverse circumstances and make the necessary changes. Give Williams a point guard he can trust and a reasonable array of talent and the likelihood is he can find a way to be successful.
Carolina's 12 league wins in a row is one of the best spells in the program's history. How much longer can it go on? Probably not forever. Objectively, the team is too dependent on Paige and still gives way too many points away at the line. Some coach somewhere is probably going to figure out the way to keep Paige under wraps for a whole game. The evidence of the last two games against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame suggests that any further March wins this team can register will need to be hard-earned. The two "ugly wins" also provided the Tar Heels a sharp reminder of how costly any loss of focus can be, even against middling opposition.
But there is that upside—an upside that was missing from the 2013 team that never could get the best of an elite opponent. Carolina's resume against top opposition this year is among the most impressive in the country. This team has legitimate reason to think it can beat anyone, no matter the ranking or game site.
And, oddly enough, despite the 12-game win streak, this team still can play without undue external pressure or fear of failure. Carolina's players can head to Durham, Greensboro and points beyond knowing they've already exceeded expectations, yet perhaps still haven't yet hit their ceiling. That's enviable mental space for a basketball team to be in as we move into the thick of March.