WASHINGTON, D.C. — There’s Good Carolina and there’s Bad Carolina. Say hello to Scary Carolina for all 40 minutes.
See North Carolina play volleyball at the rim while rolling big, long, athletic bodies at will. Watch the Tar Heels defend with energy like their shorts are on fire. Marvel at North Carolina handing Notre Dame, the defending ACC tournament champions, the most lopsided ACC tournament semifinal loss ever.
Most importantly for the Tar Heels’ March Madness hopes: Wonder what this team might be like for the next three weeks with Marcus Paige finally hitting shots.
In a year when the Tar Heels badly want to end their Final Four drought and with no clearcut No. 1, why not believe again in the preseason No. 1? The Tar Heels didn’t simply roll Notre Dame 78-47 at the ACC tournament semifinals on Friday. They choked the life out of the Irish.
Roy Williams has reminded his players repeatedly this season what he told his 2009 team, the last time the Tar Heels won the national championship. The ’09 team was inconsistent defensively most of the season, but played great at the end and that’s why the Tar Heels cut down the nets.
For a stretch of 9 minutes and 20 seconds spanning both halves Friday, Notre Dame didn’t score a point. This is Notre Dame, the fifth-most efficient offense in the country, according to kenpom.com.
“Their defense was a different level than what we’ve seen or played against in South Bend,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “We really had nowhere to go. … We could make our travel plans at halftime. Let me put it that way. That’s how tough it was.”
These have been difficult years for North Carolina for many reasons. The Tar Heels haven’t been to the Final Four since 2009, the third-longest drought in program history since 1957. They went eight seasons without a Final Four trip from 1983 to 1990, and nine straight absences from 1958 to 1966.
In Chapel Hill, six years and counting without a Final Four is like converting dog years to human years. The absences get multiplied exponentially, especially when Duke has two titles during this stretch.
The frustration is compounded by the embarrassing academic fraud scandal in Chapel Hill and the NCAA’s ongoing investigation that still hovers over the program. An investigative report commissioned by North Carolina found academic counselors pushed athletes into a system of fraudulent, no-show classes that was used to keep players eligible over 18 years. Athletes made up a disproportionate number of students who took the fake African-American Studies classes.
“It sucks that that happened, that a professor made that class available,” North Carolina legend James Worthy said Friday. “That’s not what I remember when I was there. It’s definitely not what Coach (Dean) Smith taught, nor would Roy. I do remember some of my friends that were in fraternities, they had a lot going on over there, too. I mean in college you’re going to take some slide courses. Every university does. But nothing like that. You actually have to do the work. That one was not Carolina to me.”
So to say there’s pressure on this year’s Tar Heels to change the narrative would be an understatement. In particular, North Carolina has heavily promoted Paige, who joined Mike Gminski and Tom McMillen as the only three-time academic All-Americans in ACC history.
Paige is a smart, insightful and conscientious young man. He’s also the key to North Carolina’s postseason. To put it simply, if the Tar Heels get consistent contributions from Paige, they’re as capable as anyone to cut the nets in April.
You remember Paige, right? He used to be the heart of the Tar Heels’ offense. He was supposed to be an ACC Player of the Year candidate and be in the conversation for national honors as a senior. Then he disappeared this year mentally, constantly overanalyzing his game as the fishbowl that is North Carolina kept wondering where is the old Paige.
Paige’s scoring average has dipped each of the past three years, from 17.5 points to 14.1 to 11.9. He shot 40 percent on 3-pointers last year, but was at a career-low 33 percent entering Friday. During one stretch in mid-January, he missed 21 of 22 3-pointers.
“It builds on itself a little bit and then you guys (the media) build on it more than it needs to be built,” Paige said, smiling. “Thanks for that. … Being a senior, the finality of this year, I’ve been thinking a lot. I analyze everything, and I overanalyze. That’s been a blessing and a curse, mostly a curse because at some point you just have to relax and trust your instincts and play basketball. It’s so hard to do when you’re not quite at the level you’re usually at.”
Even during warmups Friday, Paige said he told himself to relax because he has been playing basketball a long time and can do this. Paige finished the regular season with a woeful 8-of-38 stretch beyond the arc. He has made 6-of-12 3-pointers this week at the ACC Tournament, including 16 points, seven assists, two steals and no turnovers Friday.
“If I click down the stretch,” Paige said, “then no one’s really going to care what I was doing in the middle of January.”
The same can be said of the Tar Heels. Look, this is a team that’s still capable of sleepwalking and not showing enough mental toughness. We saw that for most of the first half Thursday against Pittsburgh.
But when they’re on? They’re scary. With six minutes to go in the first half Friday, starting big men Kennedy Meeks (6-10, 260 pounds) and Brice Johnson (6-10, 230) both sat with two fouls.
No matter. There was Isaiah Hicks (6-9, 235) with 11 points and 15 rebounds. There was Theo Pinson (6-6, 205) grabbing five rebounds. There was Joel James (6-11, 280) collecting five rebounds. They all got turns playing volleyball at the rim in the starters’ absence.
“The thing I like about this team is I think they’re one of the most talented teams going into the tournament,” former North Carolina star Antawn Jamison said in the locker room, where a hodgepodge of former players (Jamison, Worthy and Sean May) mingled as current players conducted interviews. “The question is consistent play. There’s going to be new venues and the fans will be against you. That’s where the mental toughness has to come in.”
Jamison pulled aside Johnson, one former Tar Heel rebounding machine reaching out to another. Jamison needed Johnson for a one-on-one interview on camera outside the locker room.
“You see my jersey number up in the rafters (at the Smith Center),” Jamison told Johnson as the interview wound down. “Do you think you have enough to be in the front row with me or the back row?”
Johnson politely dodged the question. When the camera turned off, Jamison needled Johnson for not giving a better answer. “Right behind or right next to you,” Johnson confidently said, slapping hands with Jamison.
The Tar Heels are badly trying to regain their swagger and toughness.
If Friday was for real, be afraid, America. Be very afraid.
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