After Carolina dropped a 76-61 decision to Virginia on Jan. 20, Marcus Paige sat in a corner of the locker room in Charlottesville and uttered some words that would prove to be prophetic. The Tar Heels stood 1-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and had lost two of the last three games by double figures.
"We're 1-4 right now," Paige said. "This is when we find out how tough this team is mentally. We're strong enough to handle it and bounce back, but this can't be a point in the season that we fold...This is a turning point in the season right here. We have some winnable games coming up and we have to take advantage of it if we want our season to go in the direction we want it to go."
Paige turned out to be correct, and the Tar Heels set off on a four-game winning streak that has them back above .500 in the league and firmly in the top half of the conference. Carolina has a win and holds the tiebreaker over Clemson, which currently stands above the Tar Heels in the ACC, and has three games in the next month against Duke and Pittsburgh, two other teams above them.
Keep in mind that a top-four finish means a double bye in the ACC Tournament. Securing one of those top four spots is key to having a good shot in Greensboro; the Feb. 15 home game against the Panthers, the only meeting between the two schools this year and therefore a tiebreak-decider, looms large.
So how did Paige and his teammates change their course in the middle of league play? Here are a few important factors:
A more active McAdoo
Roy Williams said recently the only player he's actively talked to during his Tar Heel head coaching career about shot attempts was Tyler Hansbrough. Williams felt Hansbrough should get 20 shots between field goals and free throws combined.
The Tar Heel head coach hasn't had that same conversation with James Michael McAdoo, but the stat still seems to have the same impact. McAdoo has reached 20+ combined shot attempts in three of the four games during the current winning streak (the only outlier was an 18-attempt game against Maryland). Prior to the current stretch, he had reached the 20+ mark in just four of Carolina's first 18 games and none of the first five ACC games.
Carolina's shooting percentages have increased in every available category. The Tar Heels hit just 40.1% from the field in the first five ACC games, but have converted 46.9% during the winning streak. The improvement is most noticeable from the three-point line, where Carolina started league play hitting just 22.7%, but has improved to 37.9% over the last four games.
Even after Tuesday's below average performance against Maryland, when the Tar heels made just 19 of 37 shots from the free throw line, they are still making 63.4% from the stripe during the winning streak, as compared to 57.3% during the first five games of league competition.
More competitive practices
It's difficult to quantify something like the quality of practice time, but everyone involved seems to agree that practices have been more productive over the last two weeks.
"The practices have been the biggest difference," said Kennedy Meeks. "We've been going hard every practice, running hard all the time."
Even the notoriously hard to please Williams has occasionally been impressed. He singled out Brice Johnson's practice on Monday of this week as the best the sophomore big man had performed at Carolina.
"It feels like we've all bought in," Paige said. "We had been talking a lot about what we needed to do, and we finally decided to do what needed to be done. We decided we're better than what we had shown, and there was no reason to waste a year wondering what might have been."
The schedule softened
It would be nice to attribute the improvement solely to a miraculous Tar Heel turnaround, but the truth is that Carolina started league play with a difficult stretch, and just finished a softer part of the schedule. Road trips to Syracuse and Virginia (a combined 18-1 in ACC play) were a difficult challenge, and Wake Forest has played well at home.
As a holdover from the double round-robin, longtime UNC fans are conditioned by league history to think of the schedule in halves. Expansion means it doesn't work that way, and the first "half" of a particular team's schedule is sometimes much tougher or easier than the second half, depending on how the various one-time opponents fall.
The teams that dealt the Tar Heels their four league losses are a combined 24-13 in the league. The teams Carolina has defeated during the current winning streak are a combined 14-24 in conference games.
Counting the teams that Carolina still has to play home-and-home (Notre Dame and Duke) twice, the opponents remaining on the ACC schedule have a combined ACC record of 41-48.
In addition, the type of teams Carolina has faced have been more compatible with their preferred style of play. Boston College, Clemson, Miami and Syracuse make up four of the bottom five teams in the ACC in Ken Pomeroy's tempo ratings. Recent opponents Maryland, NC State, and Georgia Tech, in contrast, are three of the fastest five teams in the league according to those same ratings.
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.