The Hokies host their final home game of the 2013-2014 basketball season on Saturday when the 19th ranked North Carolina Tar Heels visit Cassell Coliseum. The Tar Heels started the season 12th in the AP poll and suffered two early out-of-conference losses to Belmont and UAB. They lost leading scorer PJ Hairston to a slew of off-court troubles, and were facing a crossroads in the new ACC with a record of 11-7 (1-4). It appeared the season might have been sunk.
Fast forward 10 games and the Heels haven't lost since, and instead of scheduling home dates with the NIT committee, it appears they will be right back in the mix where they belong come March Madness. Today we have invited Brian Barbour of SB Nation partner site, Tar Heel Blog to discuss the turnaround, UNC's tournament prospects, among other things. Thank you Brian for joining us!
GC: After one of the shakier starts from a UNC basketball team, what is the primary difference between the Heels that started 11-7 (1-4) and the 21-7 (11-4) Heels that have since won 10 games in row?
THB: If you ask Roy Williams he likes to talk about their "sense of urgency" which is code for playing with effort and intensity. Honestly it is really something different every game with the one notable consistent factor being the defense. UNC has played very well on the defensive end. That has allowed them to force the tempo which, in concert with offensive rebounding, goes a long way towards overcoming their general inefficiency on the offensive end.
GC: So you guys are really enjoying Marcus Paige right now aren't you? Can you explain the transformation that's taken place as Paige has filled the "leadership" void left by the dismissal of PJ Hairston?
THB: 14 months ago, you wouldn't find anyone who thought Paige would be anywhere near what the recent UNC point guards have been. A year ago, there was a inkling Paige could reach the level of being an elite UNC point guard but no one saw this coming. It is highly unlikely you would find anyone who though Paige could be a guy who could take a game over the way he did on Wednesday night at NC State or down the stretch vs Duke. The only explanation for Paige's transformation is he might be the smartest basketball player in the ACC and he worked really hard in the off-season adding weight to his frame. His toughness is off the charts with him playing 37 mpg and constantly shaking off an ankle turn here or hard contact there.
GC: Can the Tar Heels make a dent this Spring with such question marks surrounding their perimeter shooting (just 344th out of 345 in attempts, 342 of 345 in makes)?
THB: The NCAA Tournament is about match-ups so it will depend greatly on what kind of teams UNC faces. There is a ceiling, but in the ten game winning streak UNC has encountered any number of scenarios requiring someone different to step up. At FSU it was Kennedy Meeks, against Duke it was Leslie McDonald. Marcus Paige has been a consistent force throughout but this team has been finding ways to win, the question is whether that can that continue.
GC: James Michael McAdoo. Many Hokie fans paid rapt attention to his regional battle in high school with VT commit Dorian Finney-Smith (now at Florida) down in the Virginia Tidewater area. He certainly has the pedigree, but it appears he's falling a bit short of some pretty grand expectations. Is this a case of a guy quietly getting better every year? Or does he have an on/off switch for his motor?
THB: When McAdoo has been aggressive it puts a lot of pressure on the opposing defense. The issue is he doesn't hit free throws or hits one of two on any given two shot trip to the line. Still, he is a player that must be accounted for. Early in the ACC season McAdoo was UNC's best player. Lately he is in a bit of a slump but continues to contribute on the defensive end at crucial moments.
GC: Who else might VT need to watch out for this Saturday as the third option?
THB: J.P. Tokoto has really developed into a solid player with great versatility to score as a slasher, rebound and facilitate. His jump shot is still a bit suspect but he's been know to impact the game in a variety of ways plus there is at least one spectacular dunk per game with him out there. Brice Johnson is UNC's other scoring option. Johnson comes off the bench and is a bit of an emotional sparkplug. He has a nice fall away jumper and can jump out of the gym. His playing time is often limited because he plays poorly on the defensive end at times.
GC: What are your expectations for UNC's NCAA seed, and what do you think their ceiling is?
THB: UNC is sitting in that 5-7 range right now. If they win out and get to at least the ACC Tournament semifinals I think they can push up as high as three. Getting to #2 would probably require riding a 15 game winning streak as ACC Champions into the Big Dance. Incidentally that is exactly what the 1997 Tar Heels did after starting 0-3 in the ACC.
GC: UNC always re-loads. Briefly, who is on the horizon for next year? How many will UNC have playing in the McDonald's All-American game while VT's recruits watch at home with takeout FROM McDonalds?
THB: UNC has three very good recruits coming in who also happen to fill areas of need. PG Joel Berry, if he can live up to expectations could come in and start at PG allowing Paige to play SG exclusively. Theo Pinson is an SG/SF with athleticism and a bit of an edge to him. He could also be vying for a wing spot should Roy Williams decide to run Paige at PG. Then there is Justin Jackson, a small forward with a great mid-range game and reputation for being very efficient with his offense. Assuming UNC were to only lose senior Leslie McDonald, the core of this season's team returns and is augmented with three players who can fit into spots where UNC needs bodies.
8) How did you feel about storming the court after beating Dook last week? From an outsider's perspective I felt it a little desperate for a team that has had more than it's fair share of success vs Coach K. Do you think Dean Smith would have condoned that?
THB: As a matter of philosophy I didn't think it was a good idea but having never experienced one in-person before I thought it was cool. On one level it is college kids having fun and celebrating a big win over a rival. That was the fourth time it has happened in the Roy Williams Era. One was after beating #1 UConn in 2004 and the other two were after beating Duke in the regular season finale and winning the ACC regular season. So in that respect this one didn't really fit with the others. My theory is that after the game was postponed and after losing two games to Duke last season and things starting out poorly this season, it felt like a bigger win than maybe it actually was.
GC: Even when Seth Greenberg was winning games vs UNC and keeping things dramatic in some ACC tournaments, did UNC ever once worry that VT might be getting it together in basketball?
THB: I thought the Hokies were always going to be a tough game under Seth Greenberg. In 2007, VT swept the series with UNC even winning a game in the Dean Dome. When UNC played in Blacksburg in 2009, UNC pulled away at the end which was followed by a close game in the ACC Tournament. The ACC semifinal the year before required a Tyler Hansbrough putback to win a very tough game. The Hokies' biggest issue then was they showed up for the UNC and Duke games then lost to Clemson or Boston College. So from a UNC perspective a team like VT was always plenty dangerous in the vacuum of one game but not so much in the standings.
Editor's Note: Both those ACC tournament games should have been VT wins. UNC received tremendous home-cooking, with Hansbrough being allowed to shove or wrestle all of our guys with impunity. Bitter much? Yes, unabashedly so.
GC: What's your prediction for the game?
THB: UNC by ten. Probably be an ugly affair and UNC has a penchant for playing poorly to open road games, get going late in the first half then Marcus Paige shows up.
Thanks a ton, Brian! When you folks get a chance you should take a look at the great job they do down there at Tar Heel Blog.
You can also check them out on Twitter @tarheelblog.