A month ago North Carolina basketball was a joke. They'd lost to Belmont. They'd lost to UAB. Sure, they'd gotten it together at random moments, taking down Michigan State, Kentucky, and Louisville. But then they'd need OT to beat Davidson at home. It just got worse when ACC play began. They lost at Wake Forest. They lost at home to Miami. This from the program that applies resources to basketball the same way that Alabama applies resources to football. They are all in. Everything is elite.
To make it worse, coach Roy Williams was using the suspension of PJ Hairston as an excuse. Yes, losing Hairston hurt, but all he had left was 9 consensus top 100 recruits (four of whom were McDonald's All Americans) which was more talent than all but three basketball teams in the nation. They should be able to take the court with anyone. The vast majority of basketball programs would trade rosters, no questions asked. But Roy kept going on about how PJ Hairston had developed into the most dominant perimeter player he'd ever coached and now he couldn't use him. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he was using those words to get his team worked up, but the media just went along with him.
But then, after a 1-4 ACC start, something happened. Things began to click. They beat Clemson by 19, Georgia Tech by 14, NC State by 14. Heading into tonight's game they've won six straight and only one has been by a single digit margin.
Now they roll into Tallahassee looking to stay in 4th place behind Syracuse, Virginia, and Duke.
As always, Roy's team loves to get up and down the court. They are the most athletic team in the conference, and they make good use of that athleticism. 6-1 Sophomore Marcus Paige has become a star. He's averaging 17.1 points and 4.5 assists per game. In the past three games he's made 11-17 3s. The problem is that he's the only real bomber they have. No one else shoots 30% from the arc. So they push the tempo, look for quick points, and then crash the glass. In ACC play no team has been a better offensive rebounding team than UNC. The biggest benefactors are 6-9 junior James Michael McAdoo (15.3 ppg), 6-5 senior Leslie McDonald (10.5), and 6-9 sophomore Brice Johnson (10.2).
They are good on offense, but nothing special. Florida State's offense is more efficient.
The real difference is the defense. Roy's teams often get overlooked because of the tempo in which they play. Lazy journalists equate points allowed as bad defense, regardless of how many possessions it took the opponent to score those points. This year UNC has the 12th best defense in the nation. They're solid across the board.
The recipe for FSU is simple to see, but difficult to execute. FSU's biggest defensive weakness has been their terrible rebounding, and this is where UNC excels. The Noles have to figure out a way to go off script. FSU lost last year's game in Tallahassee by allowing UNC to grab a ridiculous 59% of their misses.
The other key is FSU using their offense to help protect their defense. UNC thrives on quick hitters, so if FSU is taking (and missing) shots out of the rhythm of the offense then the shooter's teammates won't have time to rotate back properly and the Noles will get torched. Getting back is key, but this is a delicate balance as FSU can be a dominant offensive rebounding team, and you want to send waves to glass with each shot. FSU also needs to feel free to bomb away when open from deep, but those long rebounds can lead to quick UNC points if FSU isn't hitting.
With all of that talent, UNC has a tremendous advantage on paper. But the game isn't played on paper. Vegas sees this one as a game that is tough to call, and currently the Heels are a 1-pt favorite.
The game tips at 7pm from the Tuck, and will be broadcast on ESPN.