North Carolina showed on Saturday afternoon why it’s a top-five team in the country.
Or, at least, why it has that potential.
The Tar Heels didn’t let that frustrating home loss to Duke on Wednesday linger into the weekend. Roy Williams’ fifth-ranked club blew out No. 11 Miami, running away early and basically turning the second half into an exhibition. The Heels won 96-71 and in doing so, put on their best performance of the season.
It goes down as a 25-point win that felt like a 50-point blowout. Brice Johnson had another gnarly game, going for 16 points and 15 rebounds. Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks and Joel Berry also scored in double figures.
People that tuned in to watch this UNC team could well write the Heels into the Final Four of their brackets 22 days from now. I’d still be hesitant, personally. The one part of this win that was conspicuous: Marcus Paige wasn’t much of a factor. Now, he didn’t need to be, and you could argue that UNC beating a top-15 team by 30 without getting much from Paige is a good sign.
Everyone knows, though, that Paige can’t disappear for the final 10-12 games of his college career. UNC will need him to perform as an elite college point guard if this team is to meet its capability and get to Houston for the final weekend.
Without Paige, UNC made up for it with absolutely nasty inside play against a Miami frontline that is usually pretty steady. The Canes had 13 defensive rebounds.
The win was good for a UNC resume that has lacked an abundance of victories over top-25 teams. The schedule doesn’t lighten up, either. The Heels finish out their regular season with three of their next four on the road, including games at Virginia and Duke. Before those, they head to North Carolina State on Wednesday.
Miami’s issues aren’t so much with this loss, but with Ja’Quan Newton. The Hurricanes’ sixth man left the game with 6:20 to go after twisting his ankle — or perhaps injuring his knee — while battling with Johnson for a loose ball. The injury was bad enough that he could not put any pressure on his left leg. He was carried off by Miami staffers. Word coming out of the game from Miami officials is it’s a bone bruise.
Let’s keep an eye on Miami here, because this kind of blowout can sometimes rattle teams into a snowball effect. It could matter how long Newton is out, too. The Hurricanes’ next two games are at home, but they come against top-25 teams: Virginia on Monday, then Louisville next Saturday. Of course, both are winnable. And if the Canes do take both, they’ll offset the negative from this loss. Sometimes good teams take weird, awful losses on the road in conference play against the league’s best. That’s what happened here. It might wind up being no more or no less than that.