The Tar Heel Panic-o-Meter: A UNC-Duke Preview

As the final week of the regular season comes to a close, it’s time to return to our Tar Heel Panic-o-Meter one last time. When we last visited this concept back in early December, Carolina had an acceptable 4-2 record, with puzzling losses to Belmont and UAB. Inconsistency was the rule, not the exception, and wins at then #1 Michigan State and #11 Kentucky led to an 0-3 start in ACC play.

But a lot has changed since then- this isn’t the same team.

Now ranked #14 in the country, Carolina has a 23-7 record and a 12-game winning streak going into tomorrow night’s game against heated rival, Duke. We’re 30 games in, and while this young team is still an enigma, they’ve shown a lot of heart by turning a trying season into one of the biggest success stories of the year.

So no matter what happens Saturday, Carolina has a lot to be proud of.

While many media members are still cautious about calling the Tar Heels contenders, and rightfully so, it’s hard to not be impressed with what this team has accomplished. They’ve fought through adversity with the PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald situations. They’ve overcome the loss of their leading scorer (Hairston) and the unexpected early departure of their best three-point shooter (Reggie Bullock). They’ve shown consistent improvement on both  sides of the ball and have become, defensively, one of the best teams in the country. They’ve bounced back from a historically bad 1-4 start in conference play. They’ve even won close games when they’ve gotten in a deep hole (Florida State), or lost a big lead (Notre Dame). Despite every sign pointing to an NIT season early on, Carolina has clinched an NCAA Tournament berth and a top-4 seed in the ACC Tournament. That’s something they should feel really good about.

A lot of our early questions about the team have been answered, while we’ve been forced to accept that others never will be. Let’s take a look at some of them, and how they will impact tomorrow’s regular season finale.

1) Besides Paige, who will step up as a leader? Will McAdoo finally live up to the previous (potentially unfair) expectations?

Marcus Paige has simply had a season for the ages. He’s developed a reputation as a clutch second-half scorer, and has found a way to be the difference even when he’s had an off day like his game saving block in Monday’s Notre Dame game. He IS this team’s leader, and his performance has improved so drastically that he’s even worked his way into the conversation for the ACC Player of the Year and Cousy awards. But as the season has gone on, he has gotten an increasing level of support from his teammates. That, probably most of all, has been the difference for the Tar Heels.

JP Tokoto is a great example of this. Last year, he was seen as someone who was athletic, but not living up to his potential. This year, that just isn’t the case. He does a little bit of everything and is a crucial part of this team. His numbers won’t blow you away (9.4ppg, 5.8rpg, 2.9apg), but he always finds a way to contribute exactly what the team needs, whether it’s an emotional boost from a crowd pleasing dunk, to an impressive defensive performance. Tokoto has been an integral part to the team’s turnaround and is a leader on and off the court.

Others, such as Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson and Leslie McDonald have also stepped up. Their intensity has increased, and they’ve become more consistent, scoring more and contributing to the team’s impressive rebounding margin.

But the change in McAdoo has been the most fun to watch. Sure, he’s probably still not the future Top-10 pick that everybody thought he was and wanted him to be, but he’s really come into his own as a player and a leader. Yes, McAdoo still misses too many free throws. He seems to disappear at times and can get into foul trouble. But anyone who has watched Carolina play this season can see the change in his game and how it’s helped this team win. He’s more aggressive when he drives to the basket, and he takes chances that he never would have before. Statistically, his numbers are very similar to last year (14.2ppg/6.9rpg/1.7apg to 14.4ppg/7.3rpg/1.1apg), but it’s the intangibles that show his improvement. It’s obvious that McAdoo wants to win and contribute, even when he’s struggling, and this hasn’t always been the case throughout his career. Yes, he may still never be the player that we want him to be, but he has become the player that the team needs him to be and that’s made all the difference.

2) Where will the threes come from? Without Hairston, Bullock and McDonald, there’s not a proven go-to guy on the roster.

Paige is still the team’s best three point shooter, even with the return of Leslie McDonald. Seen as a distance specialist in high school, McDonald has struggled from the perimeter, shooting a high percentage on some nights, and a low one on others. At right under 40%, Paige has continued to be a consistent threat, although he has been double teamed recently, which has affected his production somewhat. The Tar Heels have found a way to win though, even as they continue to struggle. Players such as JP Tokoto and Nate Britt have contributed recently, connecting on open looks. Because the three game isn’t this team’s specialty, they’ve been forced to focus on other areas which has been to their benefit.

3) Who will be the starting center? Williams said that the whole roster is in flux besides Paige and McAdoo (likely due to Hairston’s suspension), but this position is the biggest question mark of them all.

The starting lineup finally solidified about halfway through ACC play and it’s really contributed to the Tar Heels’ improvement. With a starting five of Paige-McAdoo-McDonald-Tokoto-Meeks, the team is finally putting their best five players on the floor (with the possible exception of Brice Johnson who performs admirably in a sixth man role). While sophomore Joel James started the majority of the games at the beginning of the season, Meeks’ quick improvement led to his increased role. While he is still clearly learning the college game, he’s young and his upside is enormous. Look for him to be holding down the position dominantly in the years to come.

4) Just how long will Hairston and McDonald be out?

Just a few weeks after our last Panic-o-Meter, news came out that Leslie McDonald would return to the Tar Heels…and PJ Hairston would not. This was seen as a significant blow to the team’s chances at an NCAA berth as they continued to struggle with consistency and were in great need of a second go-to scorer. Since then however, a lot of different players have stepped up, leading to the team’s current 12-game winning streak. Contributions by Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, JP Tokoto and McDonald have more than filled the gap left by Carolina’s leading scorer from last year. The improvement of players such as Joel James, Nate Britt and Desmond Hubert has only added to this. Yes, the team could still use Hairston. If he returned he might be the most electric guy on the court. But the Tar Heels have performed well in his absence and have forged a new identity in the post-PJ world.

It’s the end of the regular season and we’re finally starting to see who this Tar Heel team is. They’re a group that is capable of great things, yet is still inconsistent enough to surprise you when you least expect it. Going into tomorrow night’s game at Duke, they’ll really have to be focused if they want to keep their momentum going into tournament season. While the Blue Devils are coming off of a stunning 10-point loss at Wake Forest, the atmosphere in Cameron Indoor Stadium will provide the biggest test for this young Carolina team yet. If they’re able to keep up their intensity and hit their free throws then they have a chance. If not, they might be in trouble. The improvement of the team overall though sets them up for success in ways that never could have been anticipated early in the season. It will be exciting to see how this plays out on the court tomorrow night.

Who do you think has the best chance for victory? The Tar Heels? Or the Blue Devils? Let us know! Our Tar Heel Panic-o-Meter level is LOW, regardless of the outcome.