Everything was set Wednesday night for a perfect “trap” game for the Tar Heels. Not only were they on the road against a sell-out crowd in one of the more boisterous (to put it nicely) arenas you’ll find, but it was Maryland’s Senior Night and last ACC home game — ever. Plus, no one could blame the Tar Heels for looking ahead to their own Senior Night against Duke on Saturday.
But instead Roy’s Boys put on one of their most dominant performances of the season. Not because of the box score (they only won by 11), not because Maryland is a great opponent (they aren’t), and not because the Heels simply played really well (they’ve been doing that since the loss at Duke). As far as the eye-test goes, this one just felt different.
For the first time all year, the small ball experiment stopped resembling an experiment, and started looking like a serious force. The Tar Heels looked loose, played with confidence, and finally took care of a game in the “strictly business” manner that really good teams do.
Every time Maryland tried to make a run, even with their home fans behind them, UNC crushed it with no regard for human life like Donald Trump in a boardroom meeting. When Maryland took the lead midway through the first half, UNC ran off a 10 straight points before the break. When the Terps made a game of it in the second half, Bullock rained down threes in what was his most efficient game of the season (18 points on just 8 shots), which seems to be a phrase fans are hearing after every game these days.
The difference Wednesday night was that the Heels have clearly found their “identity” within this new smaller lineup.
But then again, what exactly is so small about it? Sure, the Tar Heels are starting four perimeter-oriented players, but if one is 6’7 (Bullock) and the other is 6’6 and could probably sneak into an NFL training camp (Hairston), then all the sudden the Heels don’t seem to have much of a size problem.
Even Vegas seemed to take UNC’s “small ball” label for granted. The casinos favored Carolina by only one point in College Park, no doubt because Mark Turgeon’s squad sports a 7’1 potential lottery pick, and UNC essentially plays only one in the post. But see if Carolina’s Bullock and Hairston cared. Not a single Terrapin out-rebounded either North Carolina native — not even the towering Alex Len. And the bigger Terps managed to out-rebound the Heels by only one measly board.
When fans and analysts alike think small ball, their first reaction is how bigger teams are going to exploit it. But of course, this totally forgets what those teams have to do to match-up with the quicker lineup. What was seen at Maryland last night was the outrageous level of disruption and problems Bullock and Hairston present other teams when they have the freedom to roam around the court.
The two North Carolina kids (not just Carolina students-athletes, but born and raised in NC) combined for 41 points, 20 rebounds, 6 steals, 3 assists and only 2 turnovers. And that doesn’t include all the tipped rebounds, misdirected passes and defensive plays the over-sized wings created.
And of course, when the pressure is taken off the rest of Carolina’s squad because of Hairston and Bullock’s play, their teammates can maximize what they do best. In the Heels’ last five games Dexter Strickland has 25 assists and only two turnovers. Just take a moment and let that set in.
And while Marcus Paige had maybe the most disastrous five minutes in the history of Carolina point guards on Wednesday night—four turnovers and a foul, forcing Roy to (gasp) call a timeout—he responded with possibly the biggest basket of the game. Paige drained an open three out of the huddle to push the lead back out to nine and break Maryland’s run. And naturally, Marcus was wide open because of Reggie and PJ’s movement.
This is where things get interesting, because, well, Carolina’s small ball lineup is no longer interesting. It isn’t novel, and there are no more kinks to work out. The Tar Heels know who they are, and what that allows them to do is to finally get serious.
But the thing about that… is now everyone else knows too. The secret is out. Local media flocked to Twitter after UNC’s win in College Park to comment on the Heels as one of the more dangerous squads in the country — a few even joked about following them to the Final Four in Atlanta.
Can’t wait to cover this UNC team in Atlanta.
— Joe Ovies (@joeovies) March 7, 2013
Maybe for once, Ovies wasn’t joking.
You can follow Jordan on Twitter @BlackFalcon_net
Photos by TJ Root