The real Tar Heels finally have been revealed.
It is a flawed team, but that’s OK; which team in college basketball isn’t? North Carolina has accepted shortcomings and knows it has to overcome them through effort. It is a team that can depend on junior forward James Michael McAdoo for energy and leadership, even if he still struggles from the free-throw line. It is a team that needs sophomore guard Marcus Paige to lose his humility and play like the best offensive threat, even though that's not in his nature.
For half the season, Carolina's up-and-down pattern of big wins and bad losses had everyone puzzled. The first nine games were especially confusing, too. Back then, there was still a vision of the team that would emerge that would include P.J. Hairston.
Even after the school opted not to seek reinstatement for Hairston and Leslie McDonald returned, the Heels had trouble finding their identity. They’ve got it now.
“It does say a great deal about the character of the kids we have that they didn’t get down when it was 0-3 (in the ACC) and 1-4,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “They didn’t start pointing fingers at anybody else. They accepted the coaching that we were trying to do and they are getting better.”
To be clear, Carolina’s three-game winning streak has come against teams it was supposed to beat in Clemson, Georgia Tech and NC State. But there’s also no denying, being in the league cellar stripped the Heels of their cool. They’ve shown more grit and hustle in the past three games than they had in any other three-game stretch this season.
Carolina hasn’t won four games in a row this season. The Heels host Maryland on Tuesday and a victory would lift UNC above .500 in league play for the first time all season.
“I really believe we’re getting better as a team,” Williams said. “I told them that this week that I think we’re really close to really becoming a good basketball team, but we’ve got to take some more steps and got to maintain that intensity level for a longer period of time.”
Williams has said he doesn’t intentionally tighten his rotation during the course of the season. But a pattern is starting to show itself.
Carolina going forward will have freshman center Kennedy Meeks logging more time in the middle. He has had only four games this season when he played more than 20 minutes, and three of those came in the past four games.
Expect more from McDonald, the lone scholarship senior on the roster, moving forward. He has averaged more than 30 minutes in the past three games and responded with a season-high 20 points against the Wolfpack on Saturday.
By default, that means a little less time for freshman guard Nate Britt in the backcourt and more time for Paige at point guard.
The Heels won’t likely run the table in the regular season. But at least now their failures won’t be from a lack of urgency or from players still feeling out their roles. They know who they are. And they're finally playing like it.