So much has changed from last season, and still North Carolina is in the exact same spot atop the ACC standings at this point in the season. It’s an impressive feat, losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson from the national runners-up and still being in command of the ACC more than a third of the way through the conference schedule.
In an exceedingly cut-throat ACC, the Tar Heels are 6-1 with a win over the other 6-1 team, Florida State. They’re 3-1 on the road in a season when home teams are winning at a 67 percent clip. And they have their full lineup healthy and available with Theo Pinson back; Thursday against Virginia Tech will be his sixth game of the season.
The two ACC games before Pinson’s return were the loss at Georgia Tech and the overtime win at Clemson, North Carolina’s two least impressive ACC performances (although Saturday’s narrow win at Boston College is certainly a contender). Pinson made his season debut in the 51-point demolition of N.C. State, and as his role has expanded the Tar Heels’ performances have generally improved.
Not that Pinson was some kind of cure-all for what ailed the Heels, because he isn’t and there wasn’t really that much ailing them, but his versatility has given them a new dimension and restored the full lineup they expected to have from the beginning. And the results have been impressive, taking the Tar Heels to the top of the ACC standings, where they will have every opportunity to remain and repeat as the No. 1 seed in the tournament.
While their schedule only gets tougher, their position is still advantageous compared with the other contenders. The Tar Heels are likely to be favored in 10 of their remaining 11 games, which puts them narrowly ahead of 6-1 Florida State, 6-2 Virginia and 6-2 Notre Dame, each of which is likely to be an underdog twice.
It’s a slim advantage, and there are some fine margins in there, but it’s an advantage nonetheless.
This is also the point where, in each of the past two seasons, the Tar Heels faltered. In 2015, they were 7-1 in ACC play (and 17-4 overall) before losing to Louisville, Virginia, Duke (twice) and N.C. State to close out the regular season 4-6. In 2016, they were 8-0 (and 19-2 overall) before a 6-4 finish that included a home loss to Duke and losing trips to Notre Dame, Louisville and Virginia.
In the first example, it was merely as simple as the schedule getting dramatically tougher. In the second, Paige’s shooting slump was a factor as well. Again this season, this is where the schedule gets tougher.
The Tar Heels have played one of the easiest schedules in the ACC so far, and that starts to change with three games in six days, difficult regardless of the opposition – Virginia Tech, Miami and Pittsburgh – followed by a murderous run to close out the season against Notre Dame, Duke (twice), Virginia (twice) and Louisville, along with Pittsburgh and N.C. State, which despite their records have beaten Virginia and Duke respectively.
“What did we start out in the league last year? 8-0?” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Wednesday. “We didn’t play at Louisville, at Virginia, at Notre Dame, those places. We know that our schedule this year is backloaded like it was two or three years ago. But in the ACC, you better not be looking down and worrying what might happen later. You better be worried about today.
Still, there’s not a lot the Tar Heels can complain about at this point. In terms of percentages, they’re the best offensive rebounding team in the country and an above-average defensive rebounding team, but Williams thinks there’s room for improvement there. And he’d also like to see his team hold opponents to a lower shooting percentage, but North Carolina is 14th nationally in defensive efficiency.
Which is to say, that may be nitpicking a bit, but when things are going this well, it’s tough to point to too many glaring deficiencies.
With three games left in January, the ACC is North Carolina’s to lose despite who they lost from last season.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock