EAST LANSING, Mich. — Just like we all expected, right? North Carolina loses against Belmont, and comes back one week later and beats then-No. 3 Louisville. Loses at UAB on Sunday night, and comes back three days later and beats No. 1 Michigan State.
Roy Williams, the Tar Heels’ coach, might have said it best when he said this to open up his press conference late Wednesday night: “I don’t know, I don’t know and I don’t know.” Here’s the story on the Tar Heels’ first victory against a top-ranked team since 2006. And some thoughts:
THREE THINGS TO TAKE AWAY FROM UNC’S VICTORY:
1. Another game, another dramatic swing for the Tar Heels.
Maybe UNC just play top-5 opponents all the time. The Tar Heels clearly have been at their best this season against their best competition. And that makes some sense. That said, there’s really no logical explanation for following up a loss against Belmont with a victory against Louisville, and following that with a loss at UAB, and following that with a victory on the road against the No. 1 team in the country. If anything, we at least know this about the Tar Heels: They can play with, and beat, any team in the country. And, it appears, they can lose games you wouldn’t think possible, too.
2. This is how UNC needs to play all the time – from the inside out.
Williams has been waiting for someone to emerge on the interior and become a consistent difference-maker. His wait might be over. Both Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks have proven themselves during the first month of the season, and in stretches they were at their best on Wednesday night. Johnson and Meeks combined for 29 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots. Yes, Williams wants them both to become better defensively. Yes, both are still learning some of the finer things about playing at this level. Together, though, they’re giving UNC something it lacked last season: consistent inside scoring. When the Tar Heels’ offense works as well as did on Wednesday night – going from the inside out – it opens up everything.
3. What a night for UNC’s freshmen and sophomores.
Five UNC players scored in double figures on Wednesday night. All five are either freshmen or sophomores. Meeks (15 points) and fellow freshman Nate Britt (13 points) both set career highs in scoring. Johnson (14 points) and J.P. Tokoto (12 points, 10 rebounds), both sophomores, played two of their best games of the season. Sophomore guard Marcus Paige (13 points, five assists) struggled through an off shooting night but still made some clutch, important shots during the second half. UNC was always going to be reliant on younger players this season – even with P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. Without those two, it became even more important for the Tar Heels’ freshmen and sophomores to be productive. They were on Wednesday.
UNC shot more effectively, did a better job of avoiding turnovers, creating more second-chance opportunities and made it to the free throw line at a greater rate. The Tar Heels swept all four factors that are critical to winning.
OBSERVATIONS AND NOTES
--This was UNC’s first victory against a No. 1 team since March 4, 2006, against Duke. The last time an unranked UNC team beat a No. 1? That happened in 1990, when Rick Fox made a memorable shot to beat Oklahoma in the second round of the NCAA tournament. UNC now has two victories against top-5 opponents for the first time since the 2000-01 season.
--UNC did a great job – especially early on – of creating second-chance scoring opportunities. The Tar Heels finished with 16 offensive rebounds, and an offensive rebounding percentage of 39 percent. That’s not an exceptionally high percentage – the Tar Heels exceeded it in 11 games last year – but it does represent something of barometer for success. UNC lost three games a season ago when it had an offensive rebounding percentage of at least 39 percent, and two of those losses were against Duke. When UNC’s offensive rebounding percentage was less than 39 percent, it lost eight times. Rebounding, to Williams, is the most important aspect of the game. His team got it done on Wednesday night.
--Britt, the freshman point guard, continues to impress with his presence and confidence. His final line: 13 points, six rebounds, three assists and just two turnovers in 28 minutes. He also made seven of his eight free throw attempts – some of them coming late in the second half when Michigan State was attempting to crawl back into the game. Britt might be the player whose role has been most drastically altered by the absence of Hairston and McDonald. With those two, Britt is probably playing about 10 to 12 minutes per game. Without them, he’s playing a vital role on this team. UNC beat Louisville and Michigan State in part because Britt played well – very well – in both games.
THEY SAID IT
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. If you have any questions that can’t be answered by that it would really be something.”
-UNC coach Roy Williams
“It’s literally like the most opposite in the world – from nobody saying a word, getting yelled at and everyone being frustrated with ourselves, how we played, to everyone not caring about individual stats, not caring about how they played but just happy.”
-UNC guard Marcus Paige
“Huge. I was talking to Marcus – last year, at this point, we had laid a lot of eggs in big games like this.”
-UNC forward James Michael McAdoo
The Tar Heels host UNC-Greensboro, coached by former UNC player Wes Miller, on Saturday at the Smith Center.