All in all, a great win. The real question now is, will this win be remembered as simply the highlight of the season, or as a trend-turning game that changed the season? Most rational observers might have viewed the Connecticut game as the start of a brutal six-game stretch that might be likened to taking a trip through Tolkien's mines of Moria, with opportunities to have a hero or two emerge but a high likelihood of serious casualties. That may still be the case, but all of the sudden, upcoming games at N.C. State and Georgia Tech and at home to Maryland seem winnable -- if Carolina can play with effort, enthusiasm, and defensive effectiveness comparable to Saturday.
What would be even better would be if the Heels could join better offensive execution to that effort and enthusiasm. Historic lofty targets such as 50 percent FG shooting are so far out of reach for this team that they're not helpful to use as benchmarks, but it's much too difficult to try to win basketball games shooting less than 40 percent from the field for many coaches to want to try to make a living that way.
As has been well-documented, the May-less Heels face several offensive challenges: Lack of a post scorer commanding a double team makes space more difficult to find; Carolina does not have enough depth to maintain a run and gun pace to exploit the Heels' quickness and natural talent in the open court; the Heels cannot afford defensively and on the boards to have Melvin Scott supplant Jackie Manuel, which would make perimeter-oriented game plans more likely to succeed.
How well the Heels learn to overcome those challenges may well determine whether there or more days like Saturday in store. Getting out to double-digit early leads against Clemson and Connecticut at home this week was critical, but in both games the Heels struggled for long second half stretches to get good shots. On Saturday, while the Heels moved the ball around for much of the game fairly crisply and showed some good movement off the ball, in the end it often came down to Felton and McCants taking it to the hole and trying to get to the line.
That's not a bad strategy at the end of the shot clock, but not as good as getting a wide open shot either, or at worst, a one-on-one clear out. On Jawad Williams's go-ahead shot, Byron Sanders set two screens in quick succession -- one to give Felton a little wiggle room at the top of the key, the second to obstruct Hilton Armstrong and allow Williams to receive Felton's pass and have just enough separation to make his move. The Ohio sophomore elected to take the open 15-footer, which was as good a shot as any Carolina player took in the last ten minutes.
A good play, and one that hopefully we will see more of as players like Sanders become more effective screeners and as execution becomes more precise. It's good to see that Carolina can run a play and get a good shot when the game is on the line. Equally important over the next stretch may be how well Carolina's young players make decisions when plays don't quite work out as planned -- by hoisting up ill-advised shots and launching overly ambitious drives to the basket, or by being as patient as the shot clock allows?
Only time can answer that question, just as only time can tell whether this team can make performances like Saturday the norm and avoid falling back into another mini-funk. This team still has a ways to go, and its success to date is still fragile. But if Saturday's win doesn't give the Heels confidence that they can beat anybody at home (including a sky-high Maryland team this Wednesday), nothing will.
Thad Williamson is the author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/carolinabook.html. Thad welcomes your emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.