It was 1997, in what will turn out to be Dean Smith's last season as head coach, although no one knew it then. Things were going well, right up until the start of ACC play. The Heels dropped their first three games in conference, one after another. By 24 to Wake. 10 to Maryland. 12 to Virginia. And with two minutes to play in their fourth ACC game, UNC was down 56-47 to N.C. State. It's rare you can point to a single play that turned the season around, but Antawn Jamison's steal that led to a Shammond Williams layup was the first breath of fresh air for this team; they went on a 12-0 run to end the game. Although Carolina would stumble twice more in January and end the month 3-5 in the conference, they finished the regular season with eight straight wins, won the ACC tournament, and Dean Smith the college basketball wins record and one last Final Four appearance.
I would mind a similar sort of thing happening tonight.
Will it? Well, the Heels look to be without Ed Davis for a second straight game, which doesn't bode well. It's been six days since their las game, though, which hopefully has been used to fix their easier deficiencies (poor rebounding) if not the chronic ones (turnovers, although they've been on decline through the losses). And, of course, the other team on the court is N.C. State who can swing from stunning victories over Duke to 24-point blowouts at the hands of Maryland.
In a couple of ways, this is the kind of team UNC has needed to play. They don't generate much in the way of turnovers, and are near the bottom of the ACC in rebounding. They're still not following through on Sidney Lowe's yearly promise to play faster basketball, running at a tempo slower than all but BC and UVa in the conference. They run their offense through the Trevor Booker-like Tracy Smith, but don't have the perimeter shooting specialists of Clemson and Wake. If anyone's taking a three, it will be attention grabbers Javier Gonzalez at the point and freshman Scott Wood.
The Wolfpack's biggest threat is their defense, however. It doesn't show up too well in their efficiency (again, those rebounding lapses are a killer), but N.C. State requires you to earn a second or third chance before scoring. Their half court defense has a lot of height and even more patience, and Carolina has struggled with a half court offense even in better years. They'll have to run it by the Wolfpack before State can find its feet, something every team is prepared for when playing UNC these days. A slow start will be deadly for the Heels; the State teams of recent years have never been big on confidence, but if they can get a decent sized lead they won't let UNC back in it easily.
Can Carolina get the win?Of course. Will they? No idea. The team has had a long rest, and plenty of time to work their way back to a decent level of basketball. Williams is undefeated in these long-layoff conference games at UNC, but his teams have won a lot of games in past seasons they aren't winning this year. This is the point to turn the season around; which way are they going to go?