UNC Basketball: Will Big Win over UNLV Be a Launching Pad for the Tar Heels?

Doug BrodessCorrespondent IDecember 29, 2012

Dec 22, 2012; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels players P.J. Hairston (15) and Dexter Strickland (1) and J.P. Tokoto (25) react on the bench at the end of the game. The Tar Heels defeated McNeese State 97-63 at the Dean E Smith Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The North Carolina Tar Heels (10-3) took care of business at home against a talented No. 20 UNLV Rebels (11-2) team in a closely fought contest 79-73.

This was UNC’s most impressive win of the 2012-13 season, with five Tar Heel players scoring in double figures and forcing the Rebels into committing 17 turnovers.

The question is: “Will this hard-fought win turn into a launching pad for the Heels? As they get ready to open their ACC schedule Jan. 6 on the road at Virginia, will UNC be able to sustain their improved performance?

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams had to be more pleased with his team’s overall execution and effort for forty minutes against UNLV than he has been in recent games.

  • On Dec. 22, UNC dominated McNeese State 97-63, but Williams was not impressed that his Heels knocked down 13 shots from beyond the arc. He said, “I think you live by the 3, and you die by the 3.”
  • On Dec. 19, the Tar Heels got run out of the gym on the road by a mediocre Texas team 85-67.
  • On Dec. 15, when North Carolina had to hold on to beat East Carolina 93-87, Williams was beside himself because none of his interior players had grabbed a single offensive rebound.

This edition of Tar Heel basketball has been confusing and frustrating for everyone around Chapel Hill.

On paper, the Heels look like they belong in the Top 10.

Going into today’s action against UNLV, Williams’ squad led the nation in assists (20.1 apg), and was No. 3 in points scored per game (84 ppg), rebounds per game (45.8 rpg) and offensive rebounds per game (16.8 orpg; Stats provided by Statsheet.com)

But, away from the stat sheet, UNC has, at times:

  • Played down to their competition
  • Lacked intensity on defense and on the boards
  • Looked uninterested and unconcerned about their lackluster performance during their pre-conference schedule.

They have definitely underachieved at the beginning of this season, and have been drifting towards their ACC slate of games with little sense of drive or determination.

That’s one of the reasons why a coach like Williams looks forward to a game like today. It puts his team on the spot. They have to focus and prepare and perform at a high level or else…

Today, the Tar Heels stepped up to the challenge in a number of ways:

  • Dexter Strickland scored a season-high 16 points on an efficient 5-of-8 shooting.
  • P.J. Hairston scored 15 points (2-for-5 from beyond the arc) in his first collegiate start.
  • James Michael McAdoo was one rebound shy of a double-double (13 pts./nine rebs.).
  • PG Marcus Paige had a solid day with 12 points (6-of-8 FTs) and 4 assists.
  • Freshman PF Brice Johnson showed his versatility by scoring 12 points (6-of-8 from the field), grabbing four boards and nabbing three steals.

And it should be noted that UNC was without the services today of SF Reggie Bullock, who sat out of the game with a mild concussion. Bullock has been one of the more consistent UNC players so far this season.

Now, UNC’s challenge is not being satisfied with a good win against a ranked team like UNLV. The Tar Heels’ task is to build from here.

Prediction: North Carolina will keep improving and will maintain balance as they begin to navigate their ACC schedule. Look for the Heels to challenge Duke for the league title.