Not perfect, Heels still owned ACC's lower seeds this season
North Carolina didn’t have the smoothest ride during conference play.
The Tar Heels started 0-2 in the ACC for only the fourth time in 60 seasons, lost to rival N.C. State for the first time in 14 games, were beaten so handily at Miami that coach Roy Williams changed the starting lineup, and then suffered their worst home loss under Williams in the regular season finale against Duke.
Still, there was one constant throughout the ACC season — UNC never lost to an inferior conference opponent. The Tar Heels (22-9) were swept by Miami and Duke and lost road games to potential NCAA tournament teams Virginia and N.C. State, but they went 10-0 against the bottom seven teams in the league.
While No. 5 seed N.C. State got tripped up at Wake Forest and No. 4 seed Virginia lost at both Georgia Tech and Boston College, UNC’s ability to avoid a bad loss helped the Tar Heels earn the third seed in the ACC tournament heading into its quarterfinal game tonight at the Greensboro Coliseum (9:30 p.m., ESPN2/WRAL).
That consistency against lesser opponents is also a big reason why UNC is deemed to be safely in the NCAA Tournament field with an RPI of 19 despite not having beaten a team now in the Top 25.
Though UNC has won six of seven entering today’s game, its recent history in the tournament doesn’t provide much hope for an 18th conference championship, which would be second only to Duke’s 19. The Tar Heels have won the event once in eight previous appearances as the No. 3 seed (1997), and Williams is 3-4 when the tournament is held in Greensboro, having gotten past the quarterfinals just once in four tries.
Still, a late-season lineup change has rejuvenated the team and provided hope for UNC’s first title in five years. Sophomore P.J. Hairston is averaging 17.1 points and 5.9 rebounds since entering the starting lineup as a power forward eight games ago and is now heading back to his hometown, where he played for Dudley High School.
“It’s business, so it’s not vacation,” Hairston said. “I’m excited to be home, playing in front of my home crowd, but there’s work to be done.”
Hairston’s appearance in the lineup has allowed the Tar Heels to become a faster, higher-scoring team offensively, and subsequent better spacing has helped the backcourt. Since the lineup change, point guard Marcus Paige is shooting 44 percent behind the arc and shooting guard Dexter Strickland has 33 assists to just five turnovers.
Still, not everything is going smoothly — the team has won the rebounding battle just once in eight games since the 6-5 Hairston replaced a traditional center in the starting five. While forwards Reggie Bullock and Hairston have taken on more of the rebounding load, former power forward James Michael McAdoo has just 13 rebounds in his past four games while battling opposing centers and a bulging disc in his back.
Williams said he might play some of his big men more during the tournament, but he’s not about to take Hairston out of the lineup, even after UNC’s 16-point loss to Duke on Saturday.
“We’re going to stay with P.J. as the 4-man, there’s no question,” Williams said. “That lineup has been better for us, so we’ll stick with that right now.”
Still, Williams is used to winning championships with centers like Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough. No matter what happens in Greensboro this weekend, Williams won’t change his philosophy about playing through the post.
“Ol’ Roy is not going to be small for the rest of his coaching career, I can tell you,” Williams said.