published Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

North Carolina is living up to preseason expectations as postseason approaches

Duke freshman guard Austin Rivers had just hit the shot of the year in college basketball, a magical step-back 3-pointer to shock bitter rival North Carolina inside its own Dean Dome, 85-84.

Yet it was what Blue Devils boss Mike Krzyzewski said a few minutes after that shot that should concern the rest of college basketball as the NCAA tournament fast approaches.

Said Coach K: "North Carolina, I still think, is the best team in our league."

Actually, the No. 6 Tar Heels and No. 4 Duke are tied at 12-2 in Atlantic Coast Conference play heading into their showdown Saturday night in Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Assuming each program survives its midweek games against Wake Forest (Duke) and Maryland (UNC), that contest not only will determine the ACC regular-season champ but just might give the winner an inside track on a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney.

The only surprise is that the Tar Heels (25-4) aren't already locks for a top seed, since they began the year as a near-unanimous No. 1 and their entire front line -- 7-foot center Tyler Zeller, 6-foot-11 power forward John Henson and 6-8 small forward Harrison Barnes -- should become first-round NBA draft choices.

But on their way to what could be their third national championship in eight years under coach Roy Williams, the Tar Heels lost early at both UNLV and Kentucky, were crushed 90-57 at Florida State and fell to Duke after leading by 10 with a little over two minutes to play.

Then again, as Barnes noted in the preseason, "We have the opportunity to win it all and we have the opportunity to completely fail. It's just a matter of if we continue to stay humble and continue to take the right steps and get our way back on top like we did last year."

Indeed, from a somewhat disappointing start a year ago that included a 20-point loss at lowly Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels rallied to lock down a No. 2 seed in the East Regional before falling to Kentucky in the regional final.

When Harrison, Zeller and Henson all turned down chances to enter last year's draft to attempt to win UNC's sixth NCAA crown, the Heels became the immediate prohibitive favorite, mostly because of that group's imposing length.

"You look up and you see our guy's hand at the rim or maybe barely above it, and you see their guy's elbow next to my guy's hand," Nicholls coach J.P. Piper said after the Heels rolled over his team, 99-49. "We're not getting those rebounds."

No one has gotten rebounds like UNC. The Baby Blues lead the nation with 45.9 a game. More impressively, they're latching onto 15.9 offensive rebounds a game, despite shooting better than 46 percent from the floor.

"Usually teams that average 16 offensive rebounds are teams that can't shoot at all," Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said after a loss to UNC. "But they've got a lot of different weapons, and they are getting better defensively, so they're obviously a team that will challenge for this league championship and are a team that can move on to the Final Four."

Indeed, for all the individual brilliance of his front line and point guard Kendall Marshall's stunning 9.7 assists a game, Williams is proudest of what his team has accomplished on defense after the Duke loss.

In the five games since that defeat, the Tar Heels not only are 5-0 but also are surrendering only 58.6 points a game. In the four games before that, UNC was giving up 73 a night.

"We had the intensity earlier. We just weren't proficient at it," Williams said last week. "I think that our guys are just more in tune with our defensive principles right now. Defense is not just effort: You've got to know what you're doing."

Twice before in the seven previous seasons they began the year No. 1, the Tar Heels have won the national title (1982 and 2009). Playing as they have the last three weeks, Williams believes they just might get there again.

"This four-, five-, six-game stretch has been something," he said. "We have been getting better and better, defensively. The great thing about college basketball is that you get a chance to prove it on the court."

Of course, it's always easier proving it on the court when your guys can place their elbows on the same rim the other team's hands struggle to reach.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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