There's nothing new about this for Theo Pinson, nor the majority of his North Carolina teammates. This is where they expected to be at this point in the season. This is the kind of team they always thought they would be.
When North Carolina was closing in on the ACC regular-season title last season, the only player on the roster who had ever won anything was Stilman White, way back in 2012. Everything about the experience was new, even for the team's senior leaders, right until the moment the No. 1 seed was captured in the final game at Duke – and right on into the ACC tournament.
This time around, the Tar Heels not only know what it's like to be in this position, they expect to be in this position.
“It's a little different because we've been there,” Pinson said. “We've got a lot of guys who know what it takes and it's not going to be easy. It's going to be a dogfight every night. You can tell a little bit in the games. Nobody is getting rattled when they make runs. We look really poised, and it's the same thing in the huddle.”
With Wednesday's 74-63 win over Louisville, North Carolina has a two-game lead on the rest of the ACC with three games to play. Those games won't be easy – a quick Saturday-Monday turnaround at Pittsburgh and Virginia, followed by Duke in Chapel Hill – but they are winnable and the Tar Heels now have margin for error.
“The ACC standings don't really matter for us,” Justin Jackson said. “We just beat a really good team and we shot terrible. I hope that shows we can play a lot of different ways. I hope that shows we can beat a lot of teams.”
This certainly wasn't North Carolina's best performance. It was an effective performance. The Tar Heels shot 37 percent but got by on offensive rebounds (16 on 41 missed shots) and some clutch shooting by Jackson, who finished with 21 points amid effusive praise from Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who called Jackson and Duke's Luke Kennard the two best players in the conference afterward.
Pitino got far more attention for his halftime altercation with an adult North Carolina fan, who was ejected from the game, but his appraisal of Jackson's maturing game should not be overlooked. While there's still more room for aggression in Jackson's offensive arsenal, he has a flair for the dagger 3-pointer and has become a much more effective defender late in his junior season as well.
“He's made himself into a great player,” Pitino said. “A good defensive player as well. You really like to see guys who put in the time and effort to become a great player. And he has. And that's great to see – for them, not for me.”
It's not just Jackson. North Carolina's defense in general continues to progress. After holding Virginia to 41 points on 15-for-54 shooting Saturday, the Tar Heels were more effective in other areas against the Cardinals, although they can't take credit for Louisville's 4-for-13 performance from the free-throw line, and it must be pointed out that the Cardinals best road win this season was at Syracuse.
Still, with the defense showing improvement, it feels like the pieces are falling into place for North Carolina, as they often do at this time of year under Roy Williams. Even with Isaiah Hicks struggling Wednesday, the Tar Heels had four players in double figures and, more important, secured full control of their ACC destiny in front of a ferocious crowd that roared its loudest when White, making an unusual first-half cameo, banked in a shot from the lane.
With Pinson back healthy and contributing at both ends of the floor, the Tar Heels now look like the team they thought they would be, with the players they thought they would have.
“We knew at the beginning of the year we had a team that could be very successful and get back to the national championship game, but we understand it's a long road,” Pinson said. “You have to take care of your business in nonconference, take care of your business in conference, and you want to win as much as you can. Basically do what we did last year. Win the regular season, once we do that, go to the tournament, take care of business there.”
It's all within reach for North Carolina now. Which is not only where they wanted to be at this point in February, but also where they expected to be.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock