What a difference a week makes.
Last Sunday, UNC missed 26 free throws and blew a late eight point lead to fall at home to Belmont. No one knew when or if P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald would return. The team in it's current form had plenty of questions for which there were no immediate answers. Even after UNC won against Richmond on Saturday there was no getting around the idea that the 2013-14 Tar Heels presently could be boiled down to Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and James Michael McAdoo. Other players needed to step up and make plays but who those players would be was a mystery. The answer for today is Kennedy Meeks with everyone else chipping in at crucial moments to give the Heels a 93-84 win over #3 Louisville.
First and foremost, this weekend as a huge coming out party for Marcus Paige. If there were any doubts about Paige being a legit scorer they don't exist now. The sophomore from Iowa followed up his career high on Saturday with a new one of 32 points. Paige was 9-13 from the floor, 11-11 from the free throw line and went 3-6 from beyond the arc. With the personnel issues UNC is dealing with and McAdoo's inconsistency, Paige has seized the opportunity and made this his team. Even those who were really high on Paige a year ago have to be a little surprised at his growth. During the offseason Paige showed he was ready to assume the mantle of leadership on this team. He has done that in every way imaginable.
In addition to Paige's big game, he got a lot of support from multiple Tar Heels. Johnson continues to be a huge factor off the bench with 13 points, six rebounds and five blocks against a team that had the interior presence to make life difficult for him. The same could be said for Kennedy Meeks who has not really played well so far this season but showed today what he is capable of with his first career double-double. Meeks scored 13 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and dished out seven assists. The latter number was the most impressive as Meeks burned the Cardinals' transition defense with multiple full court outlet passes to streaking teammates. This level of outlet passing adds a new wrinkle to the Tar Heel fast break that hasn't been seen before.
As good as the Paige/Johnson/Meeks trio was, the Tar Heels got key contributions throughout the game from random players at critical moments. None may have been bigger than when Jackson Simmons entered the game with 9 mins left after Johnson picked up his fourth foul. Simmons immediately drew a charge on Montrezl Harrell to foul him out of the game. Simmons then scored on back-to-back possessions during a stretch with both Johnson and Paige on the bench and a limited offensive unit on the floor. And as much as Roy Williams get criticized for losses, the adjustments he has made using a 3-2 zone and how well the Tar Heels generally handled the Cardinals' press cannot be overstated enough.
It is clear at this point that UNC has legitimate offensive options on the perimeter in Paige and the interior with Johnson. James Michael McAdoo was notable invisible in the two games this weekend but he is capable of doing more. If he can get on the same level consistently with Paige and Johnson, the Tar Heels have a solid core. Then it is a matter of other players filling in the gaps as they did today. It will still be a tough road at times but if anything this game can serve as a marker for what this team can be.
This is an early season game so like no one should panic about losing to Belmont neither should anyone sign up for tickets at the NCAA pod in Raleigh either. However, there are signs of life even without two key players. If Hariston and/or McDonald don't return, this season won't live up to the potential it once held. But seeing that Williams' teams tend to improve as the season goes on there is hope. And whatever the case this moment is a nice one to go into the Thanksgiving holiday with.