After defeating arch-rival Duke, marking its eighth win in a row in conference play, it’s time once again for UNC to take to the hardwoods. Today, with tip off time being at noon est, at the friendly confine of the Dean Dome North Carolina (19 & 7 ~ 9 & 4 in ACC) will host in-state foe Wake Forest (14 & 12 ~ 4 & 9), a team the Heels lost to on January 5th 73 to 67 in their first ACC game of the season. It is also a team that right now has a six game losing streak.
This might sound kind of absurd, but today is a must win game for the Tar Heels. They are one game ahead of Pittsburgh in the ACC standings, with the Panthers having a bit easier schedule leading up to the post season tournaments. If North Carolina wants to keep fourth place, meaning they will not have to play until Friday in the conference post season tournament, they have to keep Pitt, who they have the head to head win over, at bay. On the other hand, having the head to head win against Duke, a win today would mean that North Carolina would be third in the standings. In the new, bigger (and maybe improved) Atlantic Coast Conference, with less than a half dozen games to go for all the top programs it’s truly tight at the top, which is great for both the conference fan base and anyone who truly loves college basketball.
After the come from behind victory against Duke could this be a trap game for Carolina? Sure. Can these players, coming off an emotional win, have a let down performance today? Possibly. On the other hand it seems that this squad has figured out what they need to do to win games. While some writers still think that head coach Roy Williams‘ team is not
worthy of a lock for March Madness, which I find insulting to both the coaching staff and the team itself. Another ESPN analyst, Jay Bilas, said that this team could beat anyone, but also be beaten by anyone, which makes it hard to see going far in the Big Dance. Which is true, but those losses were a while ago, and the fact the team has improved should be factored in as well. Let’s also look at the first couple of losses, had Carolina had McDonald they would have won those outings. If the Tar Heels finish out the way most believe they can it is not a stretch to believe they can be a 5 seed when it’s all said and done, and with a win today the team should be back in the rankings come next week.
The biggest question in this game will be how does this team react to playing in what will be a much more quieter Dean Dome against a team that they are superior to. This match up will also be, on paper anyway, the easiest game remaining for the Tar Heels, who will also face N.C. State and Virginia Tech on the road, then Notre Dame at home and close out with another battle against Duke, this time in Durham. The Wolfpack, who need a quality win to sway the tournament committee, the Fighting Irish and the Blue Devils, who will need that game to keep third place in the ACC, will all be looking to avenge losses to the Tar Heels. And even if we want to believe that coaches and players thing one game at a time, these things must be on the minds of young men who are about to play their fourth game in eight days.
For coach Williams this game will be also a juggling act, to see if he can get sophomore combo guard Marcus Paige some breathers during the game, so that Mr. Second Half does not have another 35+ minutes outing. While the guard I will be watching closely will be fifth year senior shooting guard Leslie McDonald, who had a great game against Duke leading UNC with 21 points, to see how he does the “game after”. If the guard has found his stroke going into the stretch run of the regular season this could be a major bonus for the Tar Heels, who need more than just Paige to be a threat from the outside. However, McDonald needs to take the shots that are there for him and not force them up. Let us not forget how freshman point guard Nate Britt played on Thursday, protecting the ball and hitting his free throws down the stretch. Is he also in “the zone” as the regular season winds down? If the first year player can keep that up it will take some pressure off of Paige, giving the sophomore a chance for more rest time. Also to be noted is sophomore J.P. Tokoto, who seems to have improved tremendously from the beginning of the season to now, barred the free throw shooting.
On the inside the focus will be on junior power forward James McAdoo, who the web boards and facebook have been speculating if he should turn pro one year early or not, who once scored in double figures after being held scoreless against FSU. But the key to me will be how both sophomore forward Brice Johnson, who was in foul trouble against the Blue Devils, and freshman Kennedy Meeks, who is improving more and more as the season progresses, do in this game. The team will need both of them if they want to do well in the post season. It will be interesting if the Carolina bigs can do the same job on the boards as the did in the first game, but this time turn those extra possessions into points.
The Vegas odds makers have North Carolina favored by 14 points over Wake Forest. I think that is about right, as UNC takes this one by the final of 81 to 63. But, as I stated above, to me the more important thing is to get some rest for Paige, along with Johnson and Meeks getting as many touches as possible. After this game, the Heels will be able to relax just a bit, after having played four games in eight days!