North Carolina has a chance to pull to .500 in ACC play with Saturday’s game against rival NC State. Just striking even seemed like an oasis not too long ago when the Tar Heels got off to an 0-3 start.
Count Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory among those who think North Carolina is beginning to turn the corner. After the Tar Heels used a strong second half to beat the Yellow Jackets 78-65, he remarked that they looked nothing like the team that struggled at the onset of ACC play.
“In North Carolina you are starting to see the team that was 10-3 in the nonconference and had the No. 1 strength of schedule,” Gregory said. “… Those guys are starting to play really well. Their upperclassmen are starting to play extremely well and those guys are pulling some of those younger guys along.”
It could be argued the younger guys are holding their own. How else would you explain when both James Michael McAdoo and J.P. Tokoto sat on the bench in foul trouble against Tech, the Heels actually expanded their lead?
Freshman center Kennedy Meeks had another performance that only solidifies his grip on a starting spot. UNC coach Roy Williams has said since preseason no one had stepped forward to claim the position.
Meeks is starting to separate himself from Joel James and Brice Johnson. Meeks’ nine points against the Jackets snapped his string of three straight games in double figures, but he added 10 rebounds and is beginning to execute on defense better.
There was a lot for Williams to like in the second half at Georgia Tech, especially the free-throw shooting late in the game. Leading by only eight, Carolina converted 11 of 12 free throws in roughly the final 90 seconds -- this from a team that has shot just 59.7 percent from the line in conference play.
Now if the Heels can just get Marcus Paige to put two halves together on offense. Paige made all six of his second-half shots against Tech, including three 3-pointers, and scored 17 of his 19 points. It’s become a puzzling trend for the sophomore.
“It’s been weird; we've played 20 games and I bet he’s had one half that’s much better than the other in 15 of those 20 games,” Williams said. “I can’t explain it. If I could explain it, I’d make him sit on the bench in the bad half and play him the other half.”
Gregory said if Paige does figure it out, Carolina could be a contender.
“When he plays well they are an elite-level team, there’s no question about it,” Gregory said. “When you put the athletic ability of Tokoto, and you have Meeks, McAdoo and Leslie McDonald. Then Brice Johnson would start on 99 percent of the teams in the country. When Marcus Paige plays at that level, they are a Final Four-caliber team.”