North Carolina has optimism, fight with new small-ball look

UNC really boosted its tourney chances. Credit Roy Williams for adapting with the pieces he has. (USATSI)

Roy Williams was as upset as I'd ever seen him exactly four weeks ago when his team was embarrassed in Raleigh against rival NC State. His Tar Heels were beaten at their own game, in transition, and he wasn't buying a moral victory despite the fact UNC made it respectable down the stretch. Williams knew his team needed actual victories, not moral ones. 

A week or so later, I saw him again -- this time after a thrashing down in Coral Gables against Miami. This time there was no anger in his voice; he was almost resigned to the fact that his team just wasn't at the level to be able to beat a veteran Hurricanes team on the road. 

But it's different now -- ever since he opted to go with small ball just prior to the Duke contest. 

He inserted P.J. Hairston into the lineup (finally), and even though his Tar Heels couldn't hold on for the victory against Duke in Durham, you just got the sense this was a different team. Could they beat one of the elite teams on the road?  Maybe not, but they could compete. They didn't get blown out, as was the case at NC State (the final score wasn't indicative) and on the road at Miami. 

Dexter Strickland and his teammates got revenge at home against NC State on Saturday -- and also moved in front of the Wolfpack, picked to win the league in the preseason, in the ACC standings. The Tar Heels are 19-8 overall and 9-5 in league play, and now have a couple of decent resume wins against UNLV and NC State. Of equal importance, this team has finally displayed some toughness. 

James Michael McAdoo may not want to play in the middle, but it's aided his effectiveness. He's a difficult matchup for opposing big men, and now has space to operate with Reggie Bullock and Hairston able to extend defenses with their long-range proficiency. Bullock was supposed to co-star with McAdoo this season, and he went for 22 points and 14 boards against an NC State team that has a couple of athletic big men in C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell. McAdoo was solid with 14, Hairston had a dozen and Strickland added eight. Sophomore big man Desmond Hubert, who received double-digit minutes in each game from Dec. 22 to Feb. 9, has received a total of 10 minutes in the last four contests. 

It was freshman point guard Marcus Paige who was the difference. He was supposed to be learning from Kendall Marshall this season, but was forced into the starting role when Marshall opted to leave for the NBA after his sophomore campaign. The last time these two teams played, Paige was overwhelmed physically and mentally. Wolfpack senior floor leader Lorenzo Brown flat-out dominated in the matchup. This time Paige held his own, finishing with 14 points and eight assists. Brown had 12 points and 12 assists. 

North Carolina, even with the win against NC State, is hardly a lock to make the NCAA tourney. The Tar Heels still have to go on the road and play Clemson and Maryland -- and they have home contests against Florida State and Duke in the regular-season finale. 

But there's optimism now -- and fight.  

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