How the Tar Heels handle their newfound success will go a long way toward maintaining it.
North Carolina played its best basketball after it had been written off as mediocre following its 1-4 start to ACC play. But the spotlight is again shining bright on Chapel Hill thanks to the Heels' nine-game winning streak.
Junior forward James Michael McAdoo admitted the Heels didn’t handle their early successes well, but he vowed this would be different.
“We’ve been here before, as far as the beginning of the season, as far as experiencing some good wins but also some bad losses,” McAdoo said. “Nobody on this team wants to go back to that place. We don’t want to have a bunch of what ifs at this point in the season.”
Carolina’s win streak has it poised to return to the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since the Dec. 30 poll. (Carolina was essentially the No. 26 team in last week’s poll, receiving the most votes of any team that wasn't ranked.)
Reaction to being ranked ranged from indifferent to cautious in the Heels’ postgame locker room on Saturday.
“The AP poll is fishy to me,” said sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto, who later added, “I just feel like the number next to the name is just for show.”
To recap, that show had quite the run. The Heels were ranked No. 12 in the preseason, dropped out of the poll after losing to UAB, then jumped back to No. 18 after beating then-No. 1 Michigan State. They were ranked No. 19 before losing to Wake Forest in the ACC opener knocked them out of the poll.
Sophomore guard Marcus Paige said Carolina didn’t need the poll for validation.
“We’ve been doing fine not ranked, so we’re not going to worry about whether we’re ranked or how high we’re ranked,” Paige said. “We know we are a good basketball team that can compete with anybody in the country, and that’s enough for us. As long as we know that, it doesn’t matter where other people have us ranked. We know when we step on the court we have a chance to win.”
The poll is just one component. Since beating Duke last Thursday, there’s been a noticeable buzz on campus. The players have received a lot more back-patting. The bandwagon that was slowly building before last week now has a maxed-out capacity.
McAdoo said the team has matured to the point where an influx of attention won't affect their focus.
“This newfound limelight, I think it’s really just going to help us become more hungry,” McAdoo said. “Whenever you experience success you always want to continue to experience it.”
Tokoto said the Heels won't get complacent over their win streak because they know they’re entering a pivotal juncture of the season.
“I feel like guys are really going to take this seriously now because we’re coming to the end of ACC play, going into the ACC tournament and looking forward to the NCAA tournament,” Tokoto said. “We can’t really take steps back now.”