by Matt Hodgin, Special to UNC Athletic Communications
Remember back in early January when it seemed like the sky was falling? The Tar Heels were 10-5 overall and 0-2 in the ACC with what the bracketologists said was only one high-profile win against UNLV. Carolina was on the verge of going 0-3 in ACC play for the second time ever. The chances of landing an NCAA Tournament berth already seemed bleak to some. It was beginning to feel like 2010 all over again, the last time the Tar Heels didn't make the NCAA Tournament, and we all know how it felt to be in Chapel Hill that season.
After avoiding the 0-3 start, UNC began to show glimmers of hope: A hard-fought win at Florida State, an impressive performance from Reggie Bullock against Maryland and a comeback, overtime win against Virginia Tech.
The youthful Tar Heels were showing improvement and intensity, something that seemed to be absent early in the season. But then there was the loss in Raleigh after falling behind by 28 points and an embarrassing blowout loss in Miami. It seemed that even though Carolina was improving, it had been pushed back in the league standings.
Going into the first matchup against Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, there weren't many giving the Tar Heels a chance. This team was too young; the environment was too hostile; Duke was too good. Besides the Heels were coming off of that 26-point defeat against Miami; it would be easy for them to just fold.
However, instead of walking in and accepting defeat, Carolina elevated its level of play and began to realize the team it could be. A mid-season change inserting P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup reinvigorated the team and sparked a near upset of the heavily favored Blue Devils. Senior guard Dexter Strickland said, "We saw what type of team we can be during the Duke game, we saw our potential and even though we lost, it was a game for us to see what type of team we can be."
The Tar Heels are now 3-1 since Hairston was inserted into the starting five with wins over Virginia, Georgia Tech and NC State by an average of 12 points. They have turned the ball over only 25 times in the past three games and have a 77-38 edge in points off turnovers in those games. But most importantly, this feels like a different team, a team that believes it can win.
Marcus Paige said after beating NC State, "I think we're starting to click a little bit. We're starting to play harder, which should never be a problem, but we are playing a lot harder."
Early in the season, Roy Williams remained adamant that although his team was experiencing growing pains, it would get better as the year went on. The challenges that come with playing young players lasted longer than anybody hoped, even longer than Williams anticipated. But it feels like those growing pains may finally be dissipating.
James Michael McAdoo is a consistent scoring and rebounding threat and is playing his best defense of the season, Bullock is playing well on both ends of the floor and Hairston has caught fire. Perhaps the biggest change is coming from Paige, the slight rookie floor general who is coming off his best performance of the season - 14 points, eight assists, three steals and no turnovers in the 76-65 win over the Wolfpack. Paige showed confidence and poise down the stretch; confidence and poise that was lacking in the first meeting in Raleigh.
So with four games to go in the regular season, the sky is not falling. Carolina, who is now 19-8 and 9-5 in the ACC, has won nine of its last 12 games and is still in line for an NCAA Tournament berth. And although the small lineup is not Roy Williams' customary set, it has become this team's identity. It has work yet to do, of course, but there is a belief now among Carolina players, coaches and fans that the 2013 Tar Heels are on the right track.