UNCASVILLE, Conn. – A week made a big difference for North Carolina. It’s still November, but in a week North Carolina basically went from outhouse to penthouse with a weekend in Connecticut that was all they could have wanted. It could change the direction of their season.
Even before North Carolina lost to Belmont last Sunday, the Tar Heels didn’t look good. It wasn’t shocking that they lost to Belmont, a well-tested team, but they were supposed to win being at home. After that, the question wasn’t even if they could beat Louisville in a potential championship matchup in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off, but rather, could they even get past Richmond first? It was one more thing for this team to deal with after the off-season issues and unresolved eligibility concerns with P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.
“Since June 5, it’s not been a very pleasant time,” said head coach Roy Williams, alluding to the day Hairston was arrested on charges of driving without a license and possession of marijuana. “It’s been probably the most difficult time I’ve had as a coach. Maybe that shows what a blessed life I’ve lived, too.”
All the questions and more were answered, capped off by a 93-84 win over the Cardinals on Sunday that could be a real springboard for this team. That was basically the mindset.
“We just wanted to come here with the mindset that we can change our season, we can get back on that right mind frame that we’re one of the best teams in the country if we play together and play hard,” said point guard Marcus Paige, who carried the Tar Heels this weekend.
Paige is emerging as a star. A year ago, the sophomore guard didn’t look ready for prime time just yet, as he was good but hardly had the look of a potential All-American one day. In both games in Connecticut, he set a new career high in scoring, as he had 26 against Richmond and 32 against Louisville. He was 9-12 from the field against the Cardinals and hit a lot of shots at key junctures to first keep the Tar Heels in it and then stave off anything resembling a Cardinal rally.
Helping him out is Nate Britt growing into the college game. While the freshman started right away, he has had far from a success-only journey to date. On Sunday, that was still the case as he was 3-9 from the field and had four turnovers to go with his five assists, but he’s shown that the Tar Heels can play him alongside Paige and be just fine. With a dearth of wings, the Tar Heels must be careful not to place too big a ball handling burden on Paige.
Then on Sunday, Kennedy Meeks looked much more ready to contribute than he did before. Meeks had a huge game on Sunday, and that’s not a reference to his 290-pound frame. The freshman scored 13 points on 5-6 shooting, grabbed 12 rebounds and had seven assists with one turnover, the latter two the kind of line you expect a point guard to have. Meeks got a couple of stickbacks and had a couple of long outlet passes for fast break layups and led the Tar Heels to a 4-34 rebound margin, although they did surrender 16 offensive boards.
“College basketball is what Kennedy Meeks did,” said Williams. “Yesterday, he was one of the worst players on the planet, and today he was unbelievable.”
And what’s happening now is the North Carolina big men are playing better when they need it. Brice Johnson has also stepped up of late, and he’s been Paige’s main complement. All of this happened on a day when James Michael McAdoo was a non-factor by going 3-11 from the field and grabbing two rebounds, something which most would figure would mean disaster for this under-manned Tar Heel team.
In other words, the Tar Heels are finding a way to play without Hairston, although they understandably want him back and probably can’t be as good as they want to be without him. But they have to manage through this time, and it’s anyone’s guess when they may get him back if they do at all.
If North Carolina gets Hairston back, he can potentially be the boost they need. McDonald is basically a good reserve, and he’ll help with depth, which is questionable right now, but Hairston could be the difference between a run in the NCAA Tournament and being knocked out early or missing it entirely. The schedule doesn’t get easier, as they head to UAB and Michigan State (in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge) and host Kentucky and Davidson before ACC play.
“We’re definitely finding out a lot about our team, what we’re capable of doing, and still knowing that we have a lot more room to grow,” said McAdoo.
Games like Sunday will help them become better for a time where they do have him, and how they develop without him and then mesh with him back in the fold will be the big keys to the season. This game was a positive sign for the development of the likes of Paige and Meeks in particular, but they and the others who helped when McAdoo struggled need to keep playing at a high level for this to be the kind of season-changer Paige alluded to