North Carolina plays better with a chip on its shoulder.
That hasn't been a factor through the years, and this season didn’t start off like that either. But forward James Michael McAdoo believes the Tar Heels have arrived at that point.
There’s the matter of proving they can win without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, which after the home loss to Belmont in the third game of the season, it looked like the team had too many flaws. North Carolina was thin on the wing and too limited on the perimeter and surely would struggle as long as the duo was out of the lineup.
Then Louisville happened.
“We’ve had to deal with some stuff off the court, we had to deal with people kind of giving up on us. I guess after the Belmont loss, [that was expected]. [But] we understand that we still have a chance to be special,” sophomore Marcus Paige said.
Forward Brice Johnson admitted the Heels got overconfident after the win over the Cardinals, hence the loss to UAB in the next game. But losing in Birmingham may have been the awakening they needed.
Losing to Belmont seemed fluky considering UNC's 26 missed free throws. But losing to the Blazers was squarely due to a lack of effort. But as the doubters got more vocal, the Heels got more resilient.
“We were like, we can’t keep doing that, we have to play up to our standards,” Johnson said.
Bounced from the Associated Press Top 25, the Heels again heard about their limitations. However, they never doubted their potential.
The road win at No. 1 Michigan State solidified it.
“We know how good we can be,” McAdoo said. “And if we get those guys [Hairston and McDonald] back, then we know how good we really can be. Until then, we’ll just keep working in practice, playing as hard as we can on game day and letting the chips fall.”
McAdoo is a prime example of a player with something to prove. The highly-touted talent has had the team's most glaring struggles.
Aside from freshman Nate Britt being thrown into the starting lineup, no other player has had to make quite the leap that McAdoo has been asked to make. He never had to play small forward before doing it in stretches this season, and he’s still just eight games into learning about the position.
He averaged nearly 20 points a game and nine rebounds in the first three games before hitting a four-game slump. His numbers were cut in half, as he didn’t reach double figures during that span and grabbed just 3.5 rebounds.
McAdoo had been pressing, but his performance against UNC Greensboro on Saturday (13 points, seven rebounds, three steals) might mean he’s turned the corner, just like his team.
“I feel like coach said just give in the [area of] effort and things will just start to turn around,” McAdoo said. “So that’s what I’ve been doing -- just trying to show up every day ready to work at practice.”