If anyone says they've figured this team out they are lying.
A few days after a poor effort in a loss to UAB where the Tar Heels were dominated on the boards and absolutely atrocious on offense, UNC literally flipped the script against #1 Michigan State. UNC jumped out to a 18-6 lead then had to weather a Spartan rally that saw the game tied at halftime. After battling through much of the second half clinging to a one to two possession lead, the Tar Heels ultimately opened up a double digit lead and hit free throws late to secure a 79-65 win on the road.
After the loss to UAB, it wasn't really a surprise that UNC came out and played with more effort in this game. Roy Williams' teams always bounce back well and usually respond to him dropping the hammer on them following a poor effort. The shocking aspect is UNC rebounded this well and out-hustled a Tom Izzo coached team which have a reputation of excelling in those particular areas. Historically speaking, Michigan State plays hard-nosed defense, rebounds well and beats you by doing all the little things. Instead of was the Tar Heels doing that. UNC outrebounded Michigan State 49-38 and got after loose balls. UNC held the Spartans to 35.9% shooting and an offensive efficiency of 90.0 against a team that came in averaging 80 points per game and was top then in offensive efficiency.
On the offensive end, UNC got a complete team effort with five Tar Heels in double figures. Marcus Paige actually struggled quite a bit in this game and only had two of UNC's 32 points at halftime. That alone was proof UNC was capable of getting offensive production from other players besides Paige. Kennedy Meeks led UNC with 15 points and 7 rebounds in 18 minutes. Brice Johnson scored 14 points and played most of his 25 minutes without fouling. He ended up with three fouls, most of them coming late in the game. Paige still managed 13 points despite his shooting struggles but dished out five assists and grabbed five rebounds. Likewise James Michael McAdoo continued to have issues on the offensive end but was effective on defense and made a crucial play late in the game by diving on the floor after a loose ball to preserve a Tar Heel possession.
The story of the game was Nate Britt and J.P. Tokoto. It is an understatement to say Britt has had his share of troubles this season and no one is going to say he changed all that in one game but the freshman point guard had the best game of his young career scoring 13 points, three assists and six rebounds. The biggest number of the stat line for Britt was 7-8 from the free throw line, all of which came in the final five minutes of the game. In fact UNC's much maligned free throw shooting topped 70% outscoring the Spartans by seven at the line.
As for Tokoto, he might very well be the individual representation of what this team is as a whole. There is undeniable athleticism there but there is also uncertainty about if his next shot will find the bottom of the net or miss wide right. In fact Tokoto's first shot of the game was a point blank jumper that missed everything. After that he was all over the place making plays ending with 12 points on 6-10 shoot and pulling down a team high 10 rebounds.Tokoto's effort and energy was critical to UNC's success in this game.
According to ESPN, UNC is the first team in 15 years to knock off the defending national champions and beat the AP #1 team in the same in the non-conference portion of the schedule. The Tar Heels now have two top-five wins for the first time since beating Wake Forest and Duke in 2001. And somehow, despite losing to Belmont at home and UAB on the road, the Tar Heels have arguably the two best wins in the ACC by anyone.
This team is a complete mystery. They are clearly capable of playing with anyone in the country and twice done so winning by double digits. Whether this team simply has a bad case of playing down to the level of competition or just happened to stumble into good match-ups with Michigan State and Louisville is anyone's guess at this point. If there is one lesson UNC can take from this game is they simply need to play ball. Early in the game Isaiah Hicks told his teammates in the huddle, "Don't look at the score, just play." This team has flaws but two wins over top five teams have proven that what this group needs to do most is play as a team and play hard.
The rest will take care of itself.