Technically, at least until Monday night’s difficult game at Virginia, the Tar Heels are no longer the worst team in the ACC — the dubious distinction they held until notching their first conference win over Boston College Saturday.
Before the hard fought 82-71 victory over the Eagles from Chestnut Hill, Carolina was the only winless team in the ACC, which means they were in 15th place in the expanded league. Now the Heels have escaped the cellar for the top ten (10th place, actually). And they looked like they might climb higher before the trip to Virginia.
With a week between games, they practiced on every aspect of their suffering execution and had two of their best days in the gym, according to Roy Williams. And it really showed against BC, shooting 53 percent from the field and making 2 out of every 3 free throws. (And they all looked like they could read!)
Saved from starting 0-4 in the ACC for the first time ever, Carolina looked much more aggressive on both ends of the court and, as Ol’ Roy likes to say, it helps when the ball goes in the basket. It did with better shot selection than in weeks, although BC is the worst defensive team in the ACC.
However, do not expect this team to finish like the last time UNC started 0-3. That was Dean Smith’s 36th and final season when the Tar Heels turned it around in dramatic fashion, won 16 straight down the stretch including the ACC Championship on their way to the Final Four.
That team had 6 guys who went on the play pro basketball, three in the NBA (including all-stars Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison) and three in Europe. This team may eventually put some players in the NBA but not until they build up (or slim down) their bodies and hone a skill set that some franchise will pay for.
The effort against BC was so much more aggressive and easily noticeable to the 18,000-plus in attendance and the ESPN audience. The Eagles’ Ivy League offense (brought to Boston by former Cornell coach Steve Donahue) makes teams play good defense for most of the 35-second shot clock or give up easy baskets.
And Carolina got better as the game wore on, holding BC to 38 percent in the second half and eventually breaking it open behind 10 points each from J.P. Tokoto and Kennedy Meeks, two of five players who finished in double figures. Who started was also an interesting development.
Former walk-on Jackson Simmons and senior Leslie McDonald got the fancy intros instead of Nate Britt and one of the big guys, and the shakeup seemed to wake up the Heels’ effort. BC may have replaced Carolina as one of four teams in last place, but it is a worthy opponent and will win some games in the ACC this season.
The game helped prepare Carolina for Virginia, which also values each possession with no stars besides All-ACC forward Joe Harris. The Cavaliers blew out NC State last week and should have beaten the Duke team that blew out State Saturday. So the Tar Heels needed to play even better than they did against BC to have any chance in Charlottesville.
That unheralded Virginia is so good says a lot about what has happened to your father’s ACC. The new and improved(?) version is a mishmash of 18 league games with some silly Saturday-Big Monday night turnarounds like playing BC Saturday and having to board a bus for Virginia Sunday.
The two best teams are Big East refugees Syracuse and Pitt and the Big Four isn’t playing so big these days. Duke is the best but eminently beatable by any team that has size and skill in the paint. And that means even Carolina has a chance versus the Blue Devils at the Smith Center on February 12.
Without an NCAA tourney berth assured, winning the rivalry games is what this season will boil down to for Carolina after losing its two best shooters and having only one scholarship senior left on the roster. Play harder, play better defense, get good shots and make them. Then maybe the free throws will keep falling at a decent rate.
As already proven, the Tar Heels can beat any team in the country and lose to almost any team. And that goes for everyone in your new ACC.