Luke DeCock

DeCock: Moving forward, Tar Heels remain a mystery

You can’t accuse North Carolina of going anything less than full speed. The Tar Heels gave it everything they had.

That it wasn’t enough was testament less to another swing-and-miss in Greensboro – North Carolina hasn’t won an ACC title here since 1998 – than to how deep, talented and well coached Miami is.

“You can’t expect to play in the ACC championship, in Greensboro, against North Carolina and not get their best shot,” former Southern Durham and current Miami forward Julian Gamble said. “We got their best shot today, and we were able to endure the punch.”

Miami winning the ACC basketball title is a lot like when Wake Forest won the ACC football title all those years ago: Two old, experienced teams from unheralded programs that put all the pieces together at the right time.

Miami has all the pieces. Shane Larkin is a stud. That regular-season championship was no fluke.

Then again, neither are the Tar Heels.

“Everybody on this team knows how good we are,” North Carolina guard Dexter Strickland said. “We can’t dwell on this loss. We just have to get focused on next week.”

As we head into the NCAA tournament, North Carolina clearly stands as the most compelling and mysterious of the Triangle teams. Duke, despite its early exit here, is primed for a long run, to no one’s surprise. N.C. State, despite making the semifinals here, looks like it can’t wait for the season to be over – and it probably will be all too soon.

But the Tar Heels are a wild card, particularly with P.J. Hairston shooting like there’s no tomorrow – which he thought there might not be after tearing his hand open Friday night – and James Michael McAdoo playing like he did last March, as if he can sense the NBA draft lottery approaching.

The switch to a smaller lineup, featuring Hairston, put the Tar Heels in this position. It has taken them a long way. The question now is how much farther it can take them.

“We did that because we thought it would give us a better chance to win,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, “but Marcus (Paige) is better now than he was in December, James Michael is better than he was in December, Reggie, Dexter, you can go on down the line, P.J., and the credit should be given to those kids who really worked extremely hard to get better.”

Of that group, the continual development of freshman point guard Paige really sets an uncertain ceiling for the Tar Heels. Paige held his own about as well as could be expected against Larkin, who would not be denied Sunday, but he’s gotten better and better in the second half of the season, almost on a game-by-game basis. If that improvement continues, the Tar Heels are primed to overachieve.

By the same token, they’re still heavily dependent for scoring on the streaky outside shooting of Hairston and Reggie Bullock, which is always a recipe for booming and/or busting, and they’re 2-8 this season against teams in the NCAA tournament.

Three of those losses were to Miami. Each time, they have been a better team, a tougher opponent, Sunday by far the toughest yet. They’re just not good enough to beat Miami – not now, or maybe not yet.

The Tar Heels have gotten better, but they faced a better team Sunday. How long before that happens again?