UNC peaking at right time before ACC tourney

In the grand scheme of things, rankings in college basketball mean absolutely nothing. They don’t affect the national championship picture, nor have anything to do with NCAA tournament seeding.

That’s why North Carolina and its vast legion of supporters shouldn’t worry about the Tar Heels’ omission from either major poll this week. At 21-8 overall and 11-5 in the ACC while riding a five-game winning streak, UNC has quickly become the third-best team in the conference and is playing like a top-20 club, even if the nation’s voters choose to keep them from the rankings.

A major reason is the play of freshman point guard Marcus Paige. The Iowa native has struggled for much of UNCs season, though he showed bouts of improvement in January. But once Roy Williams inserted P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup in place of Desmond Hubert, Paige has been a much better player.

“It feels good to be able to not think so much and just play and attack the basket,” Paige said after Sunday’s win over Florida State. “To be able to play more freely, to attack and look for my own shot or try to set up others has helped me a lot.”

Paige is averaging three assists for every turnover in that span, now at six games. Paige is also shooting nearly 38 percent from the field, up from the 32 percent he was shooting when the change was made.

The most notable improvement, and this is what feeds into why a growing number of observers see the Tar Heels as a very dangerous team moving forward is that Paige has converted 47.1 percent of his 3-pointer in the six-game stretch. Prior to the change, he made just 29.4 percent of his treys.

As a team, UNC (21-8, 11-5 ACC) shot 36.7 percent from beyond the arc before the switch; since the move, the Tar Heels are hitting 40.3 percent of their three-pointers. Paige said the floor has opened up so much that players on the perimeter have more natural options.

“Having an open driving lane is going to lead to easier baskets, let guys like Reggie get better shots, Reggie (Bullock) and P.J.,” said Paige, who is averaging 9.8 points since the move was made, but is at 7.7 for the season. “(We) get more open looks because me and Dexter (Strickland) are able to attack more. … That open space makes it completely different.”

UNC will need that perimeter shooting when it visits Maryland (20-9, 8-8) on Wednesday, for perhaps the last time in ACC play. The Terrapins are moving to the Big Ten following next season, but with two more schools entering the ACC next year (Pitt and Syracuse), the odds of UNC and Maryland playing a home-and-home are slim.

Carolina better expect a zoo-like atmosphere, too. Maryland’s contempt for Duke may be greater, but before the late 1990s, UNC was the primary source for Maryland’s angst, and it was considerable. It still is.

If the Heels can quiet the Comcast Center crowd with some dagger-like three-pointers, UNC has a good chance of leaving with a victory.

Pick: UNC, 68-65

March 5

Virginia Tech (13-16, 4-12) at Duke (25-4, 12-4)

When: 7 p.m.
Full Court Press: Senior night for Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly. Should be a fun night for Blue Devils’ fans but not for those who care for the Hokies.
Pick: Duke, 87-61

Boston College (13-16, 5-11) at Clemson (13-15, 5-11)

When: 7 p.m.
Full Court Press: Clemson has lost four straight games and seven of eight. Being at home, the Tigers need a win. Their coach, Brad Brownell, needs a win. And it would be best if they could get one with players that will return posting nice numbers. Pick: Clemson, 55-51

March 6

Georgia Tech (15-13, 5-11) at Miami (23-5, 14-2)

When: 9 p.m.
Full Court Press: How will Miami respond from its emotional defeat at Duke? This is the challenge of a championship team. Miami can’t let Duke beat it twice. Tech has some nice parts, and if not treated like a legit threat could result in an unnecessary tussle for the Hurricanes.
Pick: Miami, 71-60

Wake Forest (12-16, 5-11) at N.C. State (21-8, 10-6)

When: 9 p.m.
Full Court Press: The Demon Deacons have been awful on the road and N.C. State is playing well of late, having won five of six. Wake’s interior defense has issues, and that’s where the Wolfpack can be very strong. Also, Wake erupted in the second half of their first meeting this season, so expect the Pack to even the mark.
Pick: N.C. State, 83-65

March 7

Virginia (20-9, 10-6) at Florida State (15-14, 7-9)

When: 7 p.m.
Full Court Press: Virginia couldn’t win at Boston College after beating Duke and now must go to FSU, which may be a more difficult task. The Wahoos must score. Joe Harris and UVa’s other perimeter shooters need to sink shots and get into the lane with the dribble.
Pick: UVa, 62-59

Season record: 184-49