UNC quietly on pace to meet reasonable expectations
Entering the 2012-2013 season, national media seemed to have failed to receive the memo which announced the University of North Carolina would be losing four first-round NBA draft picks from last year's squad.
Some outlets hyped the Tar Heels as a Sweet Sixteen team, while others even had them ranked among the 10 best teams in America. Never mind the fact head coach Roy Williams had to replace half his rotation and more than 66 percent of his scoring. Forget that his most highly-touted player coming into the season was a sophomore who averaged 15 minutes per game in his debut season.
Perhaps the most difficult task for Carolina's 10th-year head coach was not replacing 55 points and 30 rebounds per game, but finding a way to facilitate his fast-paced offense without a veteran point guard leading the charge. Enter Marcus Paige.
Averaging just 6.7 points and 4.4 assists per contest this year, some may be disappointed by the play of the freshman floor leader. Williams, however, sounded like anything but a man disenchanted with the jewel of his 2012 recruiting class last Saturday.
For Carolina, the light bulb seemed to come on in the first half against Maryland. The offense moved at warp speed and the crowd on hand at the Dean E. Smith Center rose as one to celebrate the coming of a group it anticipated would eventually show up at some point.
Paige found open shooters on the wing — namely Reggie Bullock — who poured in a career-high 24 points, including 21 in that first half. The team's hustle and intensity on both ends of the floor for 20 minutes were what Williams must have envisioned when he assembled this team.
Bullock's career game came at an excellent time for Carolina. It doesn't seem like much of an overstatement to say the Tar Heels might have saved their season with a two-game stretch that saw them defeat Florida State and the Terrapins after beginning Atlantic Coast Conference play winless in its first two.
Yet to face the toughest part of its schedule, the team desperately needed those wins to keep pace in the ACC. While Duke and N.C. State once appeared to be establishing themselves as the teams to beat, a logjam has now formed with Carolina right in the middle of it.
In order to stay in the thick of things, stars like Bullock and James Michael McAdoo must play like stars — something they could not claim until last Saturday. For 20 exciting minutes, the two played in tandem as well as any other combination this season.
Tonight, the Tar Heels look to hand N.C. State its first loss in Raleigh. The Wolfpack returns home after dropping two straight road games since beating Duke, suffering a demoralizing loss Tuesday at Wake Forest. Red-clad fans are making their way to PNC Arena in hopes of righting the ship. ESPN College Gameday is showcasing the contest as its game of the week, and one has to wonder how Bullock and company will respond to the return of expectations.
Asking the Tar Heels to return to the Elite Eight was always a stretch for a squad without Kendall Marshal, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller. Maybe now that the Carolina faithful have seen their team struggle in the first half of the season, then pick itself up off the mat, more reasonable goals are on the horizon.
One would think knocking off one of their Triangle rivals and winning a game in the NCAA Tournament should satisfy a demanding fan base. Stay tuned; tonight could go a long way toward accomplishing a successful season.
Staff Writer Daniel Kennedy can be reached at 888-3575, or firstname.lastname@example.org.