North Carolina’s Big Upset Over Sparty Only Begs More QuestionsPosted by Lathan Wells on December 5th, 2013
College basketball fans, welcome to the most perplexing team in the nation. North Carolina pulled off the stunning upset last night in East Lansing, besting the top team in the nation, Michigan State. A team beset by ongoing suspensions, inconsistent play and horrendous foul shooting went into a hostile road environment following an ugly loss to UAB and promptly outplayed and outhustled the nation’s top team. A confounding team? Absolutely. A team that can be pegged as playing to its competition thus far? Perhaps. But most importantly, this might be a team with just a short enough memory to continue to make noise as the season progresses.
What might be most striking thus far in the Tar Heels’ season is this squad’s resiliency. This is a team that has been forced to juggle lineups with a lot of young players forced to play significantly larger roles than they’d anticipated. Freshmen Nate Britt and Kennedy Meeks were supposed to play complementary roles while their elders carried the torch early.Instead, the suspensions of PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald have forced a lineup shift that saw UNC running 11 players in just the first half against the Spartans. Britt was invaluable, playing perhaps his best game thus far. His ability to handle the ball without turning it over as the Michigan State team pressed out of necessity in the closing minutes was huge for this team. He was also a solid 7-of-8 from the line (UNC’s Achilles heel, 61.8 percent on the season), most of which was in crunch time when the Spartans turned to fouling in the hopes of mounting a comeback. Meeks’ passing ability and impressive touch down low was again on display; despite facing taller big men most of the game, he still finished with an impressive line of 15 points and seven rebounds off the bench and made numerous gorgeous passes to facilitate the team’s half-court sets. Not to be outdone was the continually impressive Brice Johnson. His 14 points, six rebounds and two blocks helped North Carolina control the paint.
How can a team go from a home loss to Belmont to a win against Louisville on a neutral court followed by a clunker against UAB and beating the #1 team in the polls on the road in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge? It may simply be a case of a team catching lightning in a bottle at the right time. The Tar Heels outrebounded Louisville handily, playing to their strength inside while Marcus Paige caught fire. Then it was sheer will that showed through in the win on Wednesday night, with the Tar Heels winning most of the 50/50 balls and the team doing a phenomenal job slowing any attempts at a Spartans’ fast break while shockingly shooting 71 percent from the foul line.
No one knows what to make of this North Carolina team yet. They’re often overly reliant on Paige for scoring, their free throw shooting remains suspect, James Michael McAdoo hasn’t become a dominant offensive force, and they have a fluid (read: uncertain) rotation. But consider this: Regardless of whether the team gets two of its best players back at any point this season, is there a team North Carolina cannot beat? Their roster as constructed doesn’t appear on paper capable of a successful season, but merely a month into the season they’ve already taken down the defending national champions and the number one team in the country, with neither coming on home soil. It might be time to ask whether this is a squad that simply suffers from a game-to-game identity crisis, or whether it’s one that’s just getting started.