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Tar Heels’ growth evident as postseason arrives

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The 2018–19 regular season for the North Carolina men’s basketball team can be summarized in one word — growth. Back in November, after an early loss to Texas and a blowout loss at Michigan, it would have been laughable to predict that this Tar Heel team would be in position for a top NCAA Tournament seed.

Who would have predicted that this Carolina team would sweep rival Duke after watching the Heels lose in December to the Kentucky team so thoroughly embarrassed by Duke a month earlier? Even in January, this team looked no closer to its goals in an embarrassing 21-point home loss to Louisville.

And yet here we are. At the conclusion of the regular season, Carolina now stands at 26–5, having won 14 of its last 15 ACC contests, with the only loss coming in a late collapse against second-ranked Virginia, which was No. 4 at the time. With a good showing in this week’s ACC Tournament, the Heels look to be in the driver’s seat for a top seed after all. Don’t forget: Carolina has made it to the Elite Eight each of seven times it has been a top seed under Williams, including five Final Fours and three national championships.

Yes, there were a few early signs of potential — the December home win over top-ranked Gonzaga, then ranked fourth, chief among them. But with its mix of talented freshmen, seasoned upperclassmen and less of an inside presence than is typical of a Roy Williams team, these Heels had to figure out their identity both individually and collectively.

That’s exactly what happened over the second half of the season, as the defensive intensity ratcheted up and offensive roles finally began to appear natural. The growth on the defensive end has been the most notable factor, as all seven of Carolina’s best defensive performances (as defined by opponent’s effective field goal percentage) against major conference foes have come since that January loss to Louisville. The Heels are playing better defense (and again led the nation in rebounding margin despite playing small so frequently), and that has them in position for yet another deep run in March. 

WHITE GROWING AS DECISION-MAKER

Last week, this column suggested that Coby White’s performance against Duke would provide insight into the freshman point guard’s progress as a decision-maker. White had six turnovers in the first matchup between the teams and entered the week averaging 4.25 turnovers per game in his last four games. The outcome? Zero turnovers in 36 minutes to go with a team-leading 21 points and three assists. Safe to say that counts as progress.

COLLECTING ACCOLADES

Cam Johnson is the 78th Tar Heel to be named to the All-ACC first team as voted on the conference coaches and selected sports writers. The second-year graduate transfer enters the postseason averaging 16.8 points per game on 51.1-percent shooting, including 46.9 percent from 3-point range. The latter would be the fourth-best mark in UNC school history. 

Luke Maye and White were named to the second team, and Maye won the Skip Prosser Award as the conference’s top scholar athlete for the second year in a row. White also received the second-most votes among those named to the ACC All-Freshman Team (67). 

WILLIAMS SNUBBED

Anyone who watched Kenny Williams draw four (!) offensive fouls and pester Duke’s R.J. Barrett into a 10-of-27 shooting performance (37 percent) on Saturday — including a late blocked shot that helped seal the outcome — knows that the Carolina senior is one of the conference’s top defensive players. Williams’ absence from the conference all-defensive team is surely the biggest snub among this year’s selections. 

FIRST WEEK OF SPRING PRACTICE

It’s hard to take much away from a first week of spring football practice, but based on the early buzz, one thing is clear: The quarterback position is going to be massively improved. Players have also talked about how much faster the default offensive pace is even than Larry Fedora’s high-speed attack.

Among other tidbits that have emerged so far — Chazz Surratt obviously has a long way to go at linebacker, but the former quarterback looks promising at a position that desperately needs help in 2019. 

COMMITMENT FROM VIRGINIA

UNC football reeled in another commitment from a top prospect from Virginia, this time landing 5-foot-10, 170-pound athlete LaMareon James, from Chesapeake Indian River. James will most likely end up at cornerback for the Tar Heels. James also represents Mack Brown’s return to the talent-rich Tidewater region of Virginia, which provided a disproportionately high number of talented Tar Heels in Brown’s first stint in Chapel Hill. 

STAT OF THE WEEK

75. White now holds the UNC record for most 3-pointers made by a freshman, passing Rashad McCants.

Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.

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