North Carolina finally had some time to feel good about itself this past week. The Tar Heels ended a rare two-game ACC losing skid with a hard-fought win at Florida State that had the trimmings of a team that potentially learned from its previous problems.
The Tar Heels dominated the glass, out-rebounding the usually physical Seminoles 41-19. In fact, UNC grabbed 19 offensive rebounds, matching FSU’s game total. Also, sophomore wing P.J. Hairston came off the bench to score a career-high 23 points, which included him converting 4-of-9 3-pointers. If he’s found his stroke, UNC’s offense will be much better moving forward.
Coach Roy Williams may have unleashed a missing link down low by finally giving sophomore Jackson Simmons extended minutes. Simmons scored eight points and had four rebounds – all on the offensive glass – in 15 minutes of action. Perhaps as important as the numbers is that Simmons set screens, was in the proper place on offense at all times, ran the floor hard and defended well.
“He gives you 100 percent effort,” Williams said after Saturday’s game. “And what was his first big-time play? He dove on the dadgum floor. He dove on the floor and I think we made a 2 from the far side. … And then he runs a play we’ve been working on, (and) every time we’ve run it we’ve screwed it up. He ran the play correctly and we got a backdoor layup.
“And then he goes out and sets a screen on the ball and sets it solidly He had three big plays and so I knew I was going to give him some chances in the second half as well.”
Simmons helped give the team a gritty edge it needs to beat Maryland on Saturday at the Dean Smith Center. A win over the Terrapins, especially one aided by a tough, physical effort, would be further evidence that UNC is transitioning into the kind of team it wasn’t in earlier losses to Butler, Indiana, Texas and Virginia. The Heels even wilted late in a home loss to Miami less than two weeks ago.
Maryland’s depth, athletic ability and that it has physical players and 7-foot center Alex Len present a significant challenge to the Tar Heels. But it’s also an opportunity to get a firm hand on the layering process of becoming an NCAA Tournament team capable of making noise.
Pick: UNC, 70-65
Wake Forest (9-7, 2-2) at Virginia Tech (10-6, 1-2)
When: 2 p.m. Full Court Press: The Demon Deacons are coming off a tough trip to Clemson that revealed issues scoring the ball and a lack of toughness necessary to win on the road in the ACC. The Hokies have been off for a week, and in their last game won at Georgia Tech in overtime. On paper, Virginia Tech is a bit better than Wake Forest, especially with the nation’s leading scorer, Erick Green, who is averaging 24.8 points per game. But the Hokies need production from other players to notch a second league win. Rebounding and turnovers could be the difference. Pick: Virginia Tech, 77-70
Florida State (10-6, 2-1) at Virginia (11-5, 1-2)
When: 4 p.m. Full Court Press: This is a crucial game for the Cavaliers. They dropped contests at Wake Forest and Clemson after beating UNC at home, but have had a week to get ready for a Florida State team that has scoring issues at times. Virginia is usually excellent defensively, and is almost always so at home. The home crowd should recognize the importance of this game and be a factor. Still, Virginia needs very good guard play and to pound the boards against a Seminoles team that was out-rebounded by the Tar Heels 41-19 last week. FSU must shoot well and hold down the turnovers. Pick: Virginia, 64-59
Clemson (10-6, 2-2) at N.C. State (14-3 3-1)
When: 6 p.m. Full Court Press: Clemson will be physical with the Wolfpack, including in the backcourt, and overall take a cue from Maryland in its win Wednesday over Mark Gottfried’s team. N.C. State wants to play fluidly, and the way to loosen up the Tigers is to run and hits some perimeter shots. N.C. State also has an advantage inside with C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell. The Wolfpack needs to make a healthy statement in this game. Tinkering around with Clemson won’t do this club any good. It needs a healthy victory by a wide margin. Pick: N.C. State, 74-58