One of assistant coach C.B. McGrath's favorite sayings is, "It starts with one guy."
Usually, he's talking about energy. One guy, McGrath tells the Tar Heels, can be the catalyst to spark a team.
Most often, during Atlantic Coast Conference play, that one guy has been James Michael McAdoo. He did it again Saturday afternoon, making three early trips to the free throw line and snagging three quick rebounds in the first four minutes on the way to helping his Tar Heels to what eventually became an 18-4 lead over NC State.
"We feed off James Michael's energy," Marcus Paige said. "He was attacking early and getting to the free throw line and it pumped everyone up."
It was instructive to see McAdoo on the same floor with NC State's T.J. Warren, who entered the game as the league's leading scorer and one of the top ten scorers in the country. Warren is a terrific player. He's a player who, we can all agree, is an almost certain first-team All-ACC selection.
The pair were even matched up for part of the day, as McAdoo shared the defensive responsibilities on Warren with J.P. Tokoto. Although Warren finished with 21 points, more than half of them came in the final eight minutes, when the Tar Heels had already built a 22-point lead and the outcome was long since decided. For most of the afternoon, Tokoto and McAdoo played him to a standstill--literally, there were some possessions when Warren simply stood in the corner and watched the action.
Contrast that with McAdoo, who seems to have decided he's going to do something on every single Carolina possession to make a difference. He had trouble converting on Saturday, finishing 4-of-15, but his activity level around the rim was ferocious. He finished with more offensive rebounds (6) than anyone who played in the game, more defensive rebounds (7) than anyone who played in the game, and double the free throw attempts (14) of anyone who played in the game.
If Warren is a first-team All-ACC player through the first half of the league schedule--and, again, it seems pretty obvious that he is--then what's McAdoo? You might know that he ranks in the top 10 in the league in four different categories in ACC games only. What you might not be quite as familiar with are his contributions that don't appear on the stat sheet.
After every game, the Tar Heel coaches break down the film and hand out awards in several different categories. Going into Saturday, McAdoo had won or shared the screening award in 14 of Carolina's 20 games. The coaches also give an award for the best ratio of good plays to bad plays; McAdoo has won that award in every ACC game that it's been awarded (there is no recipient if no one reaches the threshold ratio).
He's also becoming almost Zeller-esque in his ability to take charges, and he drew another one Saturday when Tokoto forced Warren baseline and then McAdoo stepped in front of him to draw the foul.
"He's been a completely different player," said Marcus Paige. "He's raised his level of play, not just in his scoring but in his efficiency. He's getting double-digit rebounds, he's taking charges, he's active and talking on defense. He's taking command of this team and when he plays like that, we're a really good team."
Just as impressively, he's the kind of teammate you want to have on your team. After the win over NC State, a reporter began a question to McAdoo about Kennedy Meeks with the sentence, "For a while there, it seemed like Kennedy had hit the wall..." and then went on to be fairly complimentary of Meeks. McAdoo's first response: "I wouldn't say that." He wouldn't even let a throwaway comment about a teammate hang there in the air without swatting it.
"He's been so encouraging to everyone else," said one of his roommates, Luke Davis. "He's stepped forward as a leader. He's texting guys, being encouraging, telling them to get in the gym. If something goes wrong at practice, he's the first one to say, 'Come on, let's get it together.'"
Carolina is eight games into the ACC season. It's time to wonder if this isn't just a hot streak for McAdoo, but a real step in the evolution of a college basketball player. He's learning how to take the skills he has and impose them on the game. He's also learning how to do some things that haven't always been comfortable for him because those things are beneficial for the team.
Those improvements have made him a more consistent and productive player, but they've also made Carolina a much better and more complete team.
"It is," McAdoo said in summation, "a great day to be a Tar Heel."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.