Why the North Carolina Tar Heels Are the Team to Beat in the ACC

By Jeremy Roth
North Carolina Tar Heels
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The ACC is filled with some of the greatest college basketball programs in the nation, and it is often regarded as one of the toughest conferences to be successful in.  Well, despite the ACC living up to its expectations yet again this season, the North Carolina Tar Heels have exceeded theirs.  Although they began conference play 0-3, they have now won nine straight games against ACC teams to move up to fourth place.

Not only have the Tar Heels been successful in the ACC, but they have defeated some of the top teams in the entire country. They defeated four of the top five teams in the AP Preseason Top 25, including Louisville, Michigan State, Kentucky and, of course, their bitter in-state and conference rival Duke just a few days ago. They are ranked No. 22 in the nation in RPI, and have solidified themselves a spot in the NCAA tournament in March.

The Tar Heels are without a doubt the hottest team in the conference right now, and they will be the team to beat in the upcoming ACC tournament for several reasons.

First of all, they have more momentum than any other team in the conference. The Tar Heels currently have one of the largest win streaks out of any team in the ACC, and two of the conference’s top teams have been highly inconsistent as of late. Syracuse just lost two straight games after starting the season a perfect 25-0, and Duke lost to the Tar Heels not too long ago. Virginia currently has the best winning streak in the conference at 11 games, but only one of those wins came against a ranked team. This team was Pittsburgh, and the Tar Heels already defeated them to knock them out of the AP Top 25.

The team that usually ends up winning the ACC tournament is the team that has the most momentum at the end of the regular season.  We saw it with Florida State in 2012, and the Miami Hurricanes last year. Both teams were not expected to win the ACC at any point throughout the regular season, but they had the greatest sense of urgency and momentum entering the postseason, which ultimately helped them come out of the tournament as champions. Right now, the Tar Heels are in the same exact position, and if they keep up this surge, then they will finish with the same outcome.

All season, the Tar Heels have struggled in two major categories: three-point and free-throw shooting. Over the course of their win streak, Marcus Paige has come to life from beyond the arc, and Leslie McDonald has shown in the past two games that his shooting game is back to normal as well.

If both players continue to shoot the ball effectively, then the Tar Heels’ offense will be almost impossible to stop. As for their free-throw shooting, not one player on the team has anything to brag about. When they shoot 65 percent or more from the charity stripe, they are undefeated, so that is a very simple goal that they must reach in order to be successful in the postseason.

In their last game against Wake Forest, the team shot 82.8 percent from the line, so maybe they have finally improved in that category. Let’s hope that last game was not a fluke, because free-throw shooting will be vital to the Tar Heels’ success moving forward.

Not only are the Tar Heels improving offensively, but their defense has been stellar as of late. J.P. Tokoto, the team’s best defender, has athleticism that gives every opposing team a difficult time on both ends of the court. The team as whole ranks 8th in the nation in rebounding, and with help of James Michael McAdoo, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson, the Tar Heels’ frontcourt is capitalizing on second-chance opportunities better than they ever have before.

Bottom line, I do not know if there is a single team in the ACC that would want to face the Tar Heels in the conference tournament with the way they are playing right now. As long as they close out the regular season strong, and do not completely collapse in their final game against Duke, then yet another ACC title will be in their future.

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