The #2 Heels are undefeated in conference play and have a shot at wrapping up another regular season title this season. Despite the Heels' place atop the standings, many fans feel apprehensive about this team because Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson have failed to hit shots with any consistency recently. The Heels should have one game to get them on track with a home date with the Eagles but the next two games on the road will be the start of the thick of ACC play.
Jackson and Paige Find Their Shot:
The struggles of the two Carolina starters have been well chronicled to this point. However, it is still important that they improve over the next few games. If the Heels want to win another regular season ACC title or win anything in the postseason then they will have to get improved play from Paige and Jackson. Paige has been especially moribund recently including an embarrassing lay up miss at Virginia Tech. The miss appeared to get in Paige's head as his performance notably dipped after that shot rolled off the rim.
Carolina needs to continue to dominate the turnover battle if they are to play at a high level while the team fails to hum on all cylinders. The Heels will face the Louisville press and have to face Notre Dame on the road in a hostile environment. Throughout the season the Heels have kept their turnovers under control and as a result, Carolina has controlled the vast majority of their games. While Carolina tries to jump start Paige and Jackson, the team can not afford to have empty possessions due to a ton of turnovers. Paige and Joel Berry need to run the Carolina offense efficiently to ensure the Heels have their best shot at winning tough road games at Louisville and Notre Dame.
Brice Johnson Stars:
Johnson has been the Heels' best player by far this season. The senior has been one of the best players in the ACC and the entire country regardless of the competition he has faced. Johnson has powered Carolina to wins and will be called upon to carry the team again as conference play heats up. Johnson must continue to avoid foul trouble while keeping up his stellar offensive and defensive play. Louisville has talent that can bang with Johnson down low and against Notre Dame, Johnson will have to cover a lot of ground on defense. No matter what, Johnson will need to play like the top player he has been if the Heels are to try to avoid an ACC loss.
Defend the Threes Well Off Screens:
There has been much consternation about the Heels' ability (or lack thereof) to defend three pointers this season, particularly on screens. The Heels have been hedging off screens and while the big man scampers back opposing guards have launched against Carolina with great success (see Texas). The Heels will need to address this defensive hole at some point this season if they want to win the national title (unless they play the risky game of trying to win everything 97-90). The Notre Dame game will be a great test of the Heels' ability to adjust to opponents who shoot threes on a larger percentage of their possessions than normal. If the Heels can adjust their defense to suffocate the Fighting Irish's offense, then fans will have been given a great sign as to the team's postseason potential.
Carolina had a 20 point lead at one point against the Hokies but Virginia Tech clawed all the way back to take a brief lead before Carolina pulled out the win. The Heels need to keep up top effort for all 40 minutes in every game they play for the rest of the season. There are no off nights in the ACC and if the Heels are to live up to their potential then they will have to play hard and focused for 40 minutes in every game. As conference play heats up, the Heels have to stay hungry for every game and for the entire game. Whenever Carolina becomes complacent, they offer a golden opportunity for opponents to get back into and win games that would otherwise be easy wins. This first stretch of hard conference games should give the Heels and fans a good measure of their mental toughness and focus as we get nearer to the postseason.