Look at how things were going on Tobacco Road just a few weeks ago. Duke was undefeated and sitting atop the college basketball world at #1. NC State was ranked with only a couple losses, and just days away from their biggest ACC win in a few seasons (or at least since the last time they beat Duke). And the Tar Heels (in complete contrast to the other Triangle teams) were floundering, having dropped their opening two ACC games for five losses on the season.

Things couldn’t have been going better for Duke. And even though the Pack haven’t been playing top five basketball all year like they should, no one would say their season wasn’t moving along fine.

Now, fast-forward to Wednesday night. Coach K has lost his only two true road games (including what looked like his worst loss in a decade), the Pack have dropped two straight to unranked teams (amidst other… issues), and the Tar Heels have run off three straight wins (in all of which Roy Williams has looked like a basketball coach, instead of a basketball coach who happens to look like Roy Williams).

How quickly things can change.

All season critics have hammered the Tar Heels over lack of post scoring, rebounding lapses, total inactivity on offense, and Roy getting that glazed-over look Phil Jackson would get when Kobe starts shooting too much.

And with the last three UNC Ws… all of those things are still 100% true.

And they’re not going to change either. Sans the occasional outburst from Hubert, the Heels still have no shot blocking at the rim — Gtech’s Chris Bolden drove past Joel James (UNC’s only real candidate for any sort of an enforcer) on Wednesday night like he wasn’t even there. No one on the roster will score with their back to the basket consistently (even with Brice Johnson’s Antawn Jamison-esque flashes). And the Tar Heel are painfully short of any sort of penetration from their guards in the half court set.

The offense bogs down and it often seems as though there’s nothing anyone can do about it, on the floor or the bench. And, honestly, there likely isn’t anything UNC can do about it. Those issues were there when the season started, and they’ll be there whenever the Heels’ season wraps up this spring.

But none of that matters when everything else is clicking.

“Else” is the kind of stuff guys argue about on message boards — intangible, amorphous concepts like “chemistry,” “IQ” and “toughness.” It’s cheesy, but it can’t be denied that the Heels painfully obvious flaws were just as omnipresent in their last three ACC wins as they were in their first two losses: stagnating offense, pedestrian D, and word is out that Hairston, Bullock and McAdoo all enjoy the occasional jump shot.

The difference? They’re just playing better (read: playing harder, smarter, with more confidence, as a team) — all that crap that’s dismissed as fluff (and coincidently, all the same traits coupled with maturation and growth). Out of nowhere there’s this intangible confidence that’s spilled over into the 50/50 balls and “toughness” plays that you can only really see with the ‘eye’ test. There really isn’t any statistic the Heels can point to for their wins, other than the final score. And of course, that’s what this team has needed all year: that ability to pull out Ws regardless of the circumstances.

But there had been something missing, some unknown quantity that’s only really noticed when it isn’t there. 

It might be disingenuous to say all of UNC’s recent wins have revolved around those intangibles finally showing up. Roy’s pulled out a few tricks to say the least (the Heels showed some two-man NBA-style play last night that UNC hasn’t run since the 20th century). But the point is, if the Heels are pulling out Ws in spite of their flaws, then maybe they have finally just “figured it out.”

And if the Tar Heels have made that leap—with NC State’s season at what seems like a tipping point—Saturday in Raleigh is going to be one hell of a basketball game.

You can follow Jordan on Twitter @BlackFalcon_net

image by Todd Melet