North Carolina Basketball Lurks On The NCAA Bubble

North Carolina basketball has been quietly lurking this season. Their frontline went off to the NBA after last season, as did their point guard in Kendall Marshall. The Tar Heels are unranked and in the current projections of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, the Tar Heels are a #10 seed, putting them right in bubble territory. But Carolina is also 15-6 and yesterday’s overtime win over Virginia Tech put them at 5-3 in the ACC. Is this going to be a case of Roy Williams getting a young team to peak in time to be a force down the stretch and in the ACC & NCAA Tournaments? Let’s take a closer look.

This team doesn’t have the same height that it has for the past several years, when players ranging from Tyler Hansbrough to John Henson towered on the baseline and gave North Carolina a huge edge over the perimeter-oriented teams that are found in college basketball today. But even so, UNC is still built around its forwards. Sophomore James Michael McAdoo is averaging 15 points/9 rebounds per game, while Reggie Bullock is at 14/6. They run 6’9” and 6’7”, so neither is going to overpower anyone in the post. And Bullock is the team’s best three-point shooter. But this is still a team that has to get the ball to its frontline.

Freshman Marcus Paige is in charge of the distribution and he’s averaging five assists a game, a nice overall total. Senior Dexter Strickland is more of a defensive stopper, while sophomore P.J. Hairston is the one who helps out with the scoring, at 12 ppg, and the only one besides Bullock who attempts three-pointers with any regularity.

The fact Hairston and Bullock are the only ones who really shoot the trey is a testament to how well-coached this team is. When I do these statistical reviews of other teams, it’s not uncommon to see someone jacking them up and hitting 30 percent. Bullock connects on 42 percent from behind the arc, Hairston is at 39 percent. Both are good enough percentages to make it a productive shot, and no one else really looks for the trey. Give Williams credit for making sure his players understand their roles.

What North Carolina is going to have to understand against good teams is the value of defense. In their three ACC losses—at Virginia, Miami and at N.C. State—the Heels have allowed opponents to shoot on the high side of 45 percent from the floor. Whereas in the conference wins—at Florida State, Maryland, Georgia Tech, at Boston  College and Virginia Tech, Carolina’s been pretty consistent keeping teams under that threshold. It’s also noteworthy that McAdoo has scored below his average in all three conference losses and been below his rebounding average in two of them.

So is it as simple as saying just play better defense and get McAdoo to step up? Maybe, but let’s not rush to any conclusion. The three games Carolina has lost have, coincidentally, been the toughest games on their schedule. We might just have a situation where North Carolina’s ceiling is about fourth place in the ACC.

With Paige three underclassmen in the lineup (Paige, Hairston, McAdoo), I’m inclined to think that North Carolina can get better on the defensive end as February progresses. We’ll certainly find out starting next week. After a home game with Wake Forest, UNC goes into a brutal two-game road sequence of Miami and Duke that starts on Saturday. And as these games approach, be aware that Hairston is day-to-day with a concussion. He needs to play if Carolina is going to compete against the best in the league. Overall though, it seems to me that Roy Williams has his young team progressing nicely and while it may not be vintage Carolina, it’s still pretty good and not one to be taken lightly by the powers-that-be.


N.C. State isn’t progressing quite as nicely. While they had the big win over North Carolina, the Wolfpack have been maddeningly inconsistent and losses this past week to Virginia and Miami have ended the Pack’s ACC title hopes and it’s not going to get easier with Thursday’s road trip at Duke. Lunardi’s bracket still had N.C. State as a #5 seed, but the last update was prior to both losses, so we’ll see how far he has them falling. I don’t want to get alarmist—wherever the bracketologist projects them, there’s going to be substantial cushion between State and the NCAA bubble. But there’s also going to be substantial games remaining and the Wolfpack need to right the ship.