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February 9, 2011
Poll Position
Carolina is Back

by John Gasaway

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Here at Poll Position I'm not in the habit of touting teams that lose by 20 at Georgia Tech. But what North Carolina's done over the five games since that loss merits some ink. I guarantee you those five games have Mike Krzyzewski's attention, as he prepares his Duke Blue Devils for a visit from the Tar Heels tonight.

Two weeks ago the consensus was that no opponent could give Coach K's team a run for their money in the ACC. But it turns out that writing off the non-Duke ACC was a little premature. Roy Williams' team suddenly looks a lot like, well, a Roy Williams team. For the first time since Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson were sprinting up and down the floor in Chapel Hill, UNC is again scoring points. A lot of points.

What changed?

Carolina's offense isn't just "improved," it's outstanding.
Now, about that loss to Georgia Tech on January 16: that night in Atlanta the Heels scored just 58 points in 75 possessions. It looked like Carolina was fated to repeat last year's performance, when Williams put an offense on the floor that ranked as the ACC's worst in conference play. Anyway that was the general consensus of opinion. But apparently Williams had other ideas. In ripping off five consecutive wins, UNC has scored 428 points in just 359 possessions. That works out to 1.19 points per trip, good enough to rank up there with the likes of Pitt, Wisconsin, or any other highly efficient outfit.

There is however one stylistic difference between this group and those great Hansbrough-Lawson offenses from way back when. Where Psycho-T famously (or, to fans of other teams, infamously) made a living by getting fouled and knocking down his free throws, these 2011-vintage Heels have been getting it done for the most part from the field. During this win streak Carolina's FT rate has been right at the ACC average. They just take care of the ball, attack the paint early in the possession, and make their twos (57 percent of them over the last five games). It's simple, and it is effective.

Look at Harrison Barnes now. He's Jimmer-like.
The McDonald's All-American from Ames, Iowa, had a rough start to his college career, up to and including his 0-for-12 effort in UNC's 72-67 loss to Minnesota at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament. But where the subject is Barnes, November can now safely be classified as ancient history. In February the 6-8 freshman's been The Man any way you slice it. Over UNC's last five games, Barnes has taken a Jimmer-esque 31 percent of his team's shots during his minutes. More importantly, those shots are going in: during the win streak Barnes has hit 58 percent of his twos and 43 percent of his threes, while distributing his attempts more or less equally between both sides of the arc. In other words Barnes is playing at the level that was expected of him all along. Opposing defenses that already have to guard 7-0 Tyler Zeller and 6-10 John Henson additionally have to defend a 6-8 featured scorer who's now equally effective on the perimeter or in the paint. Good luck.

If there were a "National Player of the Year Who Never Shoots" Award, Kendall Marshall would win hands down.
This winning streak has coincided with the insertion of Marshall into the starting lineup on January 18. (The change in the lineup apparently convinced ex-starter Larry Drew II to transfer out of the program.) With the McDonald's All-American from Dumfries, Virginia, starting at point guard, this offense has gone from struggling to surging. Was it cause-and-effect? Certainly Marshall's 16-assist effort in UNC's 89-69 win over Florida State on Sunday qualified as a point-guard clinic. But what's really impressive is that Marshall's been able to break down opposing defenses without posing much of a scoring threat himself. Over the last five games the 6-3 freshman has accounted for just seven percent of the Heels' shots during his minutes. (Repeat: seven. A number so small you can spell it.) Nor can Carolina's recent scoring outburst be traced to any of the usual point-guard metrics. UNC's ratio of assists-to-made-FGs has ticked up a bit, but it hasn't skyrocketed. Turnovers are down, a little, but they haven't plummeted. In other words Marshall appears to be the proverbial player who simply makes his teammates better. That's a good player to have.

Oh, and the D is still awesome.
Over the course of UNC's five-game happy time, Henson has personally hauled in one in every four opponent misses during his minutes, while also blocking 15 percent of those opponents' twos. And of course those are just the attempts he gets to -- Henson alters many more shots than that. As a result Carolina's held their last five opponents to 42 percent shooting inside the arc. As long as the Heels continue to average more than 70 possessions per 40 minutes, their defense will continue to be underrated. But don't be fooled: UNC is holding their ACC opponents to well under a point per trip.

Two months ago almost to the day, I had this to say about the Tar Heels:

Outstanding recruiting's been a constant at North Carolina under Williams, but only in the past 13 months have we seen on-court performance, somehow, come uncoupled from that particular constant. Earthlings know those two quantities will again be brought together, the only question being when.

Guess what. "When" is no longer in question. Carolina's back, and Duke better be ready.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

1 comment has been left for this article.

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