For the purposes of its positioning in the upcoming ACC tournament, North Carolina’s next two games – games that appeared so daunting and demanding when the schedule was released last fall – are meaningless.
Win or lose at Virginia on Monday night, and at home against Duke on Saturday, and the Tar Heels will enter the ACC tournament as the No. 1 seed. And so the Tar Heels during the final week of the regular season will need to find motivation beyond the tangible rewards of victory.
One of their motives is easy enough to identify: A win at Virginia, or against Duke, would give the Tar Heels an outright regular-season ACC championship, one they wouldn’t have to share.
Outside of that, the Tar Heels will be driven at Virginia by something equally important: The thought that March is approaching and now is the time of year when every college basketball team in the country – the ones that will still be playing, at least – wants to be at its best.
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UNC during the past week and a half has appeared closer to reaching that level than at other times this season. The Tar Heels on Saturday during their 85-67 victory at Pittsburgh played one of the most efficient offensive games of the season, and they dismantled the Panthers’ zone defense.
On the defensive end, meanwhile, UNC flustered Pitt the way it failed to do when the teams played the first time, when the Tar Heels escaped with an 80-78 victory on Jan. 31. The Panthers were in position to win then primarily because they made 13 3-pointers.
They made only seven on Saturday – and four of those came during the first 8½ minutes. After that stretch, one in which the Panthers built an early six-point lead, UNC controlled the game and won, as it usually has of late, with a new-found commitment to defense.
“These past three games, we’ve been able to get some shots whenever we’ve really needed to,” said Justin Jackson, UNC’s junior wing forward and leading scorer. “We’ve been able to get out in transition from those stops and that’s the biggest thing – coach always says, there’s never been a national championship team that hasn’t been able to play defense.
“So for us, just like last year, we have to start locking in. I mean, this is the time of the year that everybody works for in the offseason. So we’ve got to work.”
During his team’s recent victories against Virginia, Louisville and Pitt, Jackson has performed with a flair on offense that has placed him in the conversation for ACC Player of the Year. After the victory on Saturday, though, he said nothing has changed with his shooting.
Nothing has changed with his confidence, he said, or with how he’s used. Offensively, at least, Jackson is doing what he’s usually done this season – albeit with more success.
The difference, Jackson said, has come on defense. That’s where he has most sought improvement. The same could be said for his teammates, and it has shown: The Tar Heels in their past three games have reversed a troubling defensive slide that persisted through January and early February.
UNC owes its defensive turnaround to several factors: The amount of time it has spent in practice to address its defensive shortcomings, for one, and the natural improvement that comes over the course of the season. The Tar Heels seem to be getting it, at last.
And yet the most important factor for the defensive resurgence might be this: Time is running out.
This is the final week of the regular season. The ACC tournament begins, for UNC, one week from Thursday. And then, beyond that, any one loss would end the season.
“I think we just know what’s at stake,” Joel Berry, the junior point guard, said on Saturday, “and we know that it’s getting down to the nitty-gritty. And we’ve got to lock in and stay focused.”
The Tar Heels did that the first time around against Virginia. And then against Louisville, and on Saturday against Pitt, too. And now the goal remains the same in the final two games of the regular season – games that at once mean nothing and everything approaching the postseason.