CHAPEL HILL – Ask any North Carolina fan what the Tar Heels’ greatest area of need is, and you’re likely to get the same answer.
With North Carolina ranking near the bottom of the ACC in three-pointers, the desire for coach Roy Williams to land an elite shooter is deep.
Williams seems to agree.
However, the Tar Heels’ 2014 class contains a steady point guard in Joel Berry, a dynamic shooting guard in Theo Pinson and a smooth wing scorer in Justin Jackson. While all three were coveted recruits, none of them is necessarily known as a pure shooter. So when the Tar Heels made a late run at guard Rashad Vaughn – who would have likely filled the role of shooter quite well – it wasn’t a surprise.
But before he was scheduled to take an official visit to Chapel Hill in mid-February, Vaughn picked UNLV, meaning the Tar Heels had to turn the search for a reliable shooter toward the 2015 class.
The two most likely targets at the moment are Luke Kennard from Franklin, Ohio and Austin Grandstaff from Rockwall, Texas. Both players possess the touch from outside that would placate Tar Heel fans’ yearning for someone to stretch opposing defenses.
The 6-5 Kennard will reportedly start taking visits this spring. He’s included the Tar Heels on his short list since last summer.
Grandstaff originally committed to Oklahoma State but backed out in early February. The 6-4 shooting guard is entertaining interest from several new suitors. The Tar Heels are apparently among them.
Happy Days Return In Chapel Hill
At one point during his meeting with the media leading into North Carolina’s game against Duke, Roy Williams answered a question about coaching in big games by saying he gets excited for each one. Jokingly, he said he only gets scared for a team like UAB, giving a plug to former assistant and current Blazers coach Jerod Haase.
He then turned to longtime media relations head Steve Kirschner and asked if the old adage was true that any publicity is good publicity. Kirschner, who as team spokesman helped handle the program’s response to the recent NCAA scandal, chuckled and said he disagreed with that.
“It’s the story of our lives the last nine months,” Williams said with a laugh.
At that moment, North Carolina had strung together seven-straight wins, likely cementing an NCAA Tournament berth and positioning itself as a team to watch in the ACC.
The next night, the Tar Heels upended then-No. 5 Duke in front of a rowdy Smith Center crowd that eventually flooded the court after the final buzzer.
After a period in which North Carolina’s basketball program was bogged down in off-court trouble and on-court struggles, a four-week span from late January to mid-February had managed to reverse the season’s storyline and finally create some positive momentum.
For much of this season, the headlines coming out of the North Carolina program had been bad ones.
First, there was the probe into the impermissible benefits that resulted in a nine-game suspension for senior guard Leslie McDonald and the end of shooting guard P.J. Hairston’s college career. The whole saga – which included rental cars and shady characters – dragged on for nearly seven months, testing the patience of fans that were still stinging from a football scandal that got a coach fired and left that program on probation.
There was plenty of angst on the court, as well, as losses to Belmont and UAB sucked some of the joy out of non-conference wins against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky. And when the Tar Heels started 1-4 in ACC play – the school’s worst league start since the disastrous 2001-02 season – powder blue panic buttons were being mashed.
The small, vocal and mostly misguided segment of North Carolina’s fanbase that’s constantly critical of the Tar Heels’ Hall of Fame coach was at full throat. Things were not well in Chapel Hill.
Fast forward a month, and that’s a distant memory.
The Tar Heels’ rough start in the league was as much a product of their schedule as it was any of the team’s shortcomings. The Tar Heels likely weren’t going to win at Syracuse or Virginia, and Wake Forest has a reputation of being difficult at home. Only the loss at home against Miami looked to be a real sin.
But with home games against Clemson, N.C. State and Maryland, as well as road trips to Georgia Tech and Notre Dame, the Tar Heels were able to get some of their confidence back. And it was during this stretch that the factors leading to the resurgence began to take shape.
Without much in the way of reliable offensive firepower, North Carolina began to lean on its defense. In ACC games, teams are hitting just 30 percent of their three-pointers against the Tar Heels. North Carolina also ranks among the league leaders in steals per game.
In the victory against Duke, North Carolina employed a variety of zone looks, confusing the Blue Devils and contributing to a lengthy second-half field goal drought.
The Tar Heels still got consistent production from sophomore guard Marcus Paige. But after some lulls early on, junior forward James Michael McAdoo emerged as a team leader and a dominant inside force. Averaging around 14 points and eight rebounds per game in conference play and playing with a level of fire that hadn’t been seen during his first two seasons in Chapel Hill, McAdoo shook off some of the criticism he drew earlier in his career and injected his name into the All-ACC conversation.
Throw in some modest improvement by centers Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, and the Tar Heels head into the final days of the regular season looking little like the deeply flawed team that, just a few months ago, forced fans to sweat out close non-conference wins against teams such as Holy Cross and Davidson.
But perhaps the most important thing that the Tar Heels now have on their side is the peace of mind that comes from being out from under the shadow of scandal. McDonald is back, and Hairston is several states away in the NBA Developmental League.
The drama is over. There are no more what ifs.
The players know their roles.
So when the Tar Heels faced a rugged Pittsburgh team or fell behind early at Florida State or had to mount a comeback in the frenzied environment of the Duke game, they did so with a deeper knowledge of who they are.
And that’s turning out to be a nice story.