Congratulations, Wes Miller, and watch out, Kentucky!
If the Tar Heels’ wacky season stays true to form, they will either lose to or be taken to the wire Saturday night by UNC-Greensboro, which is coached by Miller, another former member of the UNC program.
Then they’ll come back a week later and run (soon to be) second-ranked Kentucky out of the Smith Center (probably with another Roy Williams hissy fit in between).
And if that happens, the Heels will have struggled with four mid-majors (including Holy Cross) while defeating the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the nation. They are already the first to beat the defending national champion and current No. 1 team in the same season. Go figure it out.
Everyone, including the UNC head coach, is trying to after Wednesday night’s absolute stunner over top-ranked Michigan State at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, where the Spartans haven’t lost to an unranked, non-conference opponent in too many years to count.
It was only 10 days since UNC knocked off No. 3 Louisville up at a Connecticut Casino. But it seemed like a month after the U-G-L-Y loss to UAB and former assistant coach Jerod Haase, who knows how to defend Carolina after spending the last 15 years playing and coaching for Williams. Double team Marcus Paige, clog the middle and dare the Heels to beat you from outside.
Those who expected the typical slugfest with Michigan State, which often dons football pads to practice rebounding, were pleasantly surprised to see the Spartans are running more than ever. Against transition, the spacing gets wider and the court gets bigger. Apparently, Izzo still doesn’t get that (which may be why his record is now 0-7 against Ol’ Roy).
If the Heels could just get off to a good start, which they did by leading the entire first half before Michigan State tied the score with the last basket. Paige began a second half spurt, and Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto finished it to extend the lead back into double figures. And they made enough free throws down the stretch.
Williams used 11 players in the first half, 12 overall, and for the most part they all looked like they knew where they were supposed to be and what they were doing. Which isn’t a given these days.
Joel James started and scored the first basket, and after that freshman Kennedy Meeks showed why he will be the Tar Heels’ regular center before too long. Meeks (15 and 7) moves his big body pretty deftly around the paint and got open for over-the-top lobs and offensive rebounds.
Johnson, a scoring machine in high school, needs to be on the court longer and justified the 25 minutes Williams gave him with 6 rebounds and 14 points, none bigger than his back-to-back hoops that broke the last second half tie. Williams has complained about Johnson’s defense from the first practice last season, but they have struck a compromise. Brice has improved and Roy puts him at the top of his new 3-2 zone, where his wingspan can bother interior passing and outside shooting.
James Michael McAdoo returned from his sabbatical somewhere to make his first two rainbow jumpers, but still finished shooting 3 for 11. And, besides knocking in the key first bucket of the second half, Paige missed 10 of his 14 shots.
But that’s all good news because the Heels still freakin’ won going away!
Nate Britt played big, attacking the basket and (mostly) protecting the ball enough to make 7 of 8 free throws and earn his coach’s “tough little sucker” award, one of Williams’ highest compliments.
And then there’s Tokoto, who is on the floor so much only because P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are not. He had 12 points and led all rebounders with 10, 5 on each end of the court, and made two key second-half baskets himself.
When he shoots, Tar Heel Nation cringes, but Williams loves his athletic ability and his willingness to get his nose dirty in a scrum or at 12 feet. If Tokoto only shot better than 40 percent from the line, he could perfect the old Duke ploy of pump-faking a three-pointer and then jumping into the defender.
So you know that whatever went right Wednesday night is going all wrong again when Wes Miller brings his 4-4 Spartans of a different color into the Dome. Miller was like an assistant coach when he played, so look for the zone and the opportunity for anyone but Paige to beat them from outside.
But if and when the Heels start to stink it up again, keep this one schizophrenic thought in mind: Kentucky’s coming in – and going down – the next week.