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What to make of the NIT run so far

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Two wins in the NIT have UNC fans showing a much more sunny disposition than they showed after the two disappointing losses to end the season. But what exactly can be made of Carolina's two NIT wins so far?

THF made a great comment last week that playing in the NIT was a Catch-22 for the Tar Heels. If the team played poorly, it would justify all the naysayers who wanted to turn down a NIT bid (if it was even possible to do so). If the team performed well, it would make people ask where was this all season. So far the Tar Heels have won a game that, by all counts, they should have expected to win; and they have won a game no one really would have expected them to win, at least this season.

In these two games, Carolina has not necessarily played well, but well enough. After a hot start against William & Mary, UNC's usual perimeter defense showed up and allowed the Tribe to throw it up from Carrboro and have it go in, but in the end Carolina out-athleted the CAA's 3rd place team to post an 8-point home win. Then this past weekend in Starkville, the Heels gutted out a win on the road against a Mississippi State team that had a legitimate bubble chance and was a Demarcus Cousins stickback from beating Kentucky and winning the SEC tournament. UNC missed some chances to put it away but came up with some clutch plays and a little luck to pull out a win.

When you put this with the Wake Forest and Miami wins late in the ACC season, Carolina has won four of its last six games, and was in the game until nearly the bitter end with Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament. They have won at home and on the road, mostly against opponents they should have been expected to beat, at least based on expectations even into late January. They still make the same mind-numbing mistakes and give up big opponent runs, but as C. Michael recently pointed out, the runs are now 10-13 points instead of 18-25 points, which is allowing the Heels to stay in games.

More important, UNC has seemed to sprout a little confidence while looking a little more loose and relaxed on the floor. Maybe it took the ultimate release of expectations for the team to finally relax, or maybe the guys have finally started to listen to the coaches. But whatever the reason, there is no longer a sense of dread in watching the team play. Most knowledgeable Carolina fans knew there would be growing pains this season, but the expectation was that the team would get better as time went on. Most of January and February showed regression, but with the exception of the egg laid at Duke, Carolina is performing at an improved level - not where fans, players, or coaches hoped it would be in March, but much better than the depths of early February.

So back to the original premise - what to make of these first two games. The improvement is nice to see, but for my money the crucial game is Tuesday night. UNC has won two games in a row only once in 2010, and that was followed by the Duke disaster. If the Heels can go into what will be a wild arena in Birmingham and beat UAB, then their entire NIT experience is validated and they are playing with house money after that. If the Heels lose, or worse stink it up while doing so, then the narrative reverts back to struggling to beat a 3rd-place mid-major at home and sneaking by a snake-bitten MSU squad. On the other hand, if Carolina can make it to New York, no one on the other side of the bracket is particularly scary and the potential to win the whole stinking thing exists...