CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — No. 18 North Carolina beating No. 11 Kentucky 82-77 at home shouldn’t have shocked anyone. Nearly half of UNC’s wins this season now (three of seven) have come against teams in the top 11 of the AP poll. And both of UNC’s losses were to good teams (Belmont and UAB), but teams that aren’t on the same level of Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky.
At this point, though, those losses are looking more and more like anomalies. Still, the question has to be asked…
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Who is the real UNC?
Even the players didn’t have a consistent answer.
“We were young at the beginning of the year … We’re getting better,” sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “We’re still working on exactly who we are, but I like our potential as a team.”
Sophomore forward Brice Johnson, who nearly tore the roof off of the Smith Center with a dunk in the second half, was a bit more sure of his response.
“We’re not figuring it out. We know what we are. We know who we are,” Johnson said. “Those were just bad losses. We didn’t come out and play. See what happens when we do come out and play – we beat people. We know exactly who we are. We know what we need to do to win, what Coach wants us to do. We have to just go out there and do it.”
Who this team needs to be going forward, though, was made pretty clear as the Tar Heels gutted out a close win over a young — but talented — Kentucky team.
1. UNC needs to be – as Roy Williams put it – aggressive, but patient, on offense.
Against Kentucky’s shot-blockers, this was particularly applicable. But really, it’s going to come into play as the season progresses when the Tar Heels see more and more zone, and are going to have to work to dissect a defense as the game goes on and get the best shot possible.
“I told the whole team I wanted us to be aggressive and patient, and that’s hard. That’s sort of opposites there,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “I wanted us to be aggressive trying to get the ball to the basket on the break, but then get good shots when you get there.”
In the first few minutes, it was Kentucky that dictated the way the game was played. Willie Cauley-Stein, a sophomore seven-footer, was absolutely dominating the paint. And it was a bit of an adjustment for the Tar Heels to figure out how to attack the basket without getting a shot swatted right back in their face.
“It definitely took an adjustment. Marcus (Paige) and I talked about it at halftime,” freshman point guard Nate Britt said. “I know for me specifically, there were a couple of times where I was in the paint or I had short-range shots where I felt like I couldn’t get the shot off, so I had to dribble it back out or make a pass.
“I think we just learned as we played. The more we played them, we just learned where we could get shots. We needed to attack their bodies and get on the free-throw line instead of shying away from the contact, and that’s how they were getting a lot of blocked shots early on.”
Easy for any of us to say that college basketball players should continue to attack the basket without fear as their shots continually are either blocked or altered by a freakishly long, athletic defender that seemingly appears out of nowhere.
“I pump-faked one of the Harrison twins and Cauley-Stein came out of nowhere and just blocked it. I was like, ‘Where’d he come from? I thought I was by myself!'” Johnson said.
Paige — who was held to two points in the first half on 0-of-5 shooting — struggled with Kentucky’s long guards as well, often not able to get inside the paint at all and having to settle for three-pointers.
“Their length, athleticism, physicality — it’s surprising at the beginning of a game. You talk about it, you watch it on film but when you get out there and Willie Cauley-Stein is up at the rim, you’re like ‘Sheesh,'” Paige said. “So it’s a little bit of an adjustment period, but still, I had to stay the course, stay aggressive and just try to pick my spots better and work harder on the offensive end in the second half.”
He certainly did that, finishing with 23 points (20 in the second half), hitting 6-of-8 shots from the floor and 1-of-2 from three in the second half alone.
“We did a better job of screening for him in the second half. They did a lot of switching, so we tried to get big screening for little, particularly for Marcus. I think the guys looked for him more,” Williams said.
Which leads us to…
2. UNC needs Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo to be as good as they were on Saturday.
In UNC’s other wins over ranked teams, one or both of the Tar Heels’ most experienced players have had an off night while the younger ones picked up the slack. McAdoo in particular had seemingly hit a wall recently — in three games spanning Louisville-Michigan State, he hit just 9-of-35 shots and 5-of-15 free throws, getting a total of ten rebounds and scoring 23 points.
Against UNCG last Saturday, he started to find his way (13 points on 4-of-8 shooting) and then against Kentucky, he dominated the first half and finished with 20 points, getting to the foul line 19 times. He was aggressive, driving to the basket instead of settling for jumpers, and he looked comfortable and confident.
“Every time he touched it, I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to move because he’s coming.’ I don’t want to get in his way. I don’t want my man to go over there and help,” Johnson said. “He was being very aggressive and I love that out of him. That’s what I want him to do. That’s what he’s best at.”
And he was doing all of this while being one of the primary defenders on Kentucky’s Julius Randle, one of the best freshmen in the country and an absolute beast down low. Randle finished with 11 points on 3-of-9 shooting and just five rebounds. He was averaging more than 17 points and 12 rebounds.
Freshman center Kennedy Meeks has had some nice games when McAdoo has struggled, as has sophomore wing J.P. Tokoto. But the freshmen are going to hit a wall, and the ceiling of some of the guys who have picked up the slack scoring-wise are only so high. McAdoo is going to need to be this McAdoo more often than not when ACC play rolls around.
Paige, meanwhile, has all the pressure on him. He has to hit free throws (and did, hitting most of UNC’s key foul shots late while his teammates couldn’t) and three-pointers (he has 21 of UNC’s 25 made three’s this season). He has to take on more of a scorer’s mentality after spending most of his college career to date as a point guard. And he has to overcome his slightly smallish frame with some craftiness.
“He made two unbelievable shots,” Williams said. “The little floater on the baseline (with 1:41 to go) was just — I’m always kiddingly harping on how I don’t like floaters until you show me you can make them, and he’s coming pretty doggone close.”
And he’s genuinely made the floater part of his repertoire.
“Sometimes it looks like luck because you just kind of flick it up there and guys are swatting at it and it just drops in. But it’s a shot me and (Britt) practice all the time, because we’re not the biggest guys around, so you’ve got to be able to be crafty when you get into the paint. He wasn’t able to get that one, so I was happy when he didn’t block it.
“As a point guard and someone who wants to be one of the better point guards in our league, you have to have that shot in your arsenal. I guess if I keep making it, (Williams) might have to live with them,” Paige said, grinning.
3. UNC has to be tough.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari was worried entering the game that his team wouldn’t be able to handle it if North Carolina was the more physical team. Williams was asked after the game if he thought his team could “bully” the young Wildcats.
“Bully them?” Williams said, incredulous. “We barely look good going through an airport. We’re not going to win a street fight with anybody, my gosh.”
And Williams may have a point. Early, it was Calipari’s team that was quicker to lose balls and dominate the paint and the glass. Kentucky rebounded nearly 46 percent of its own missed shots in the game (and turned them into 19 second-chance points), but turned it over 17 times (10 on North Carolina steals).
The Tar Heels, even if they couldn’t finish defensive possessions with a rebound, overcame a slow start offensively and finished hitting 19-of-34 shots in the paint. UNC got seemingly every offensive rebound when it mattered, too. They couldn’t make a free throw late in the game to save their lives, seemingly, but two of their eight second-half offensive boards came on missed free throws in the final 59 seconds.
But it’s more than physical toughness, or hustle plays. It’s mental toughness.
Last year’s team — a group that included P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, two of UNC’s most experienced players that are sitting on the bench in street clothes, still awaiting word from the NCAA on their eligibility — managed to salvage a relatively slow start (16-8) by winning nine of its final 12 games.
But last year’s team didn’t beat anyone that was better than them during that stretch, either. It lost three times — to Duke, Miami and Kansas — and while UNC was in all two of those games, it lost all of them by double digits.
The Tar Heels’ most impressive win last season was arguably over a UNLV team that lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
This year, UNC has three wins that are much better than that. Yes, the Tar Heels’ young pieces are more experienced this season. But last year’s team had a clearly defined ceiling, and this year’s team seems to have none, even without last year’s best returning player (Hairston).
So what’s the difference?
“This group does a good job of staying together through adversity better than last year’s group. If a team makes a run, we don’t fold — or we haven’t folded yet,” Paige said. “We’ve done a great job of staying the course, as our coaches always say, whereas last year, if a couple things went wrong we could end up being down 20 like that, especially early in the year.
“This team is just a little bit more mentally tough.”