On this team’s underrated toughness and ACC road record

When the ACC is as bad as it is this season, it is understandable that no one is handing out much praise to Carolina for surviving the ACC season without what could be termed a bad loss. It wasn’t until we soundly defeated Duke to end the regular season that the national media (excluding Jay Bilas, who seemed to never leave our camp) finally jumped back on the UNC bandwagon as a legitimate national title contender. But there are a few observations to be made that validate the accomplishment.

After we trounced Duke to clinch the ACC regular season title, it was easy to focus on that as the deciding game. In reality, that is a game Carolina expected to win, and the regular season title was ultimately won back in January when Duke dropped two bad losses at home to Florida State and Miami. They made one of them up by beating FSU in Tallahassee, a great win that UNC could not get, but needed UNC to help out with a bad loss of its own. A season split of the Duke-UNC series should have led to a tie between the two, but Carolina made it through unscathed.

We weren’t without plenty of opportunities. Much was made in the media about the inequity of the conference schedules of Duke and Carolina, especially down the stretch, and when the title hunt was still a three-team race, most agreed that over the final month of the season, UNC faced a more difficult series of games, especially on the road, than either Duke or FSU. A simple comparison of which games Duke and UNC did not have to play this year illustrates the disparity. We missed out on second games with each of the anemic bottom three, BC, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech; Duke played all three twice, which means that three of their eight ACC road games were automatic (though they almost lost two of them). Duke, meanwhile, missed out on second games with Miami, State, and Virginia, and faced each of them at home in that one game. Again, they played FSU twice to our once, but our one game with them was on the road. We played a road game against every team that finished in the top half of the conference while Duke played at only FSU, and each of those road games came in one two week span to close the season.

This is an inevitable byproduct of a twelve team league about which the conference can do absolutely nothing. I point this out not to complain, but to tout the underrated achievement of our team. After we beat Wake Forest in an ugly but easy affair, I felt uncomfortable with the false security of our 6-1 ACC record. We had no road wins against legitimate opponents and that brutal non-Duke schedule still ahead with two games against UVA and three other tough road games; I silently predicted that we would drop at least one, since even the 2009 team had that unfortunate loss at Maryland.

Yet we didn’t, marking the second year in a row that this team responded to an early conference season blowout by proceeding to win out with the exception of a loss to Duke. Say what you will about a perceived lack of toughness and inability to close out games, but this team doesn’t seem to lose games that it truly shouldn’t. This response was especially impressive this year given the circumstances: we had a target on our back the entire season, and we faced the adversity of two losses that were historically traumatizing on opposite ends of a spectrum.

From the early career criticisms of Tyler Zeller, you would not peg him as the type to respond to the debacle against Duke by returning even more focused and even more assertive to win the ACC POY award and score 6 of our first 10 points on the way to a highly efficient double-double in the grudge match. But we got to listen to Roy rave about Zeller’s intense pregame focus and relish in his huge, satisfying smile after he watched the end of a blowout win from the bench.

After battling unmet expectations the entire year, Barnes played the Duke game under control but attacked the basket aggressively early in the game, carrying us through the initial first half run. Even though Zeller and Marshall were the post-game stars, in interviews Barnes showed that confident, clever swagger that his game backed up and that we hope defines his performance in the tournament: “They were so loud and enthusiastic all game and I was just wondering if that was going to continue. They didn’t seem too happy — a little quiet. It was unfortunate for them, really unfortunate.” When asked to clarify who he was mocking, he followed with this gem: “The fans. Always the fans. Always the Jersey kids.” This after leaving the floor with his hand mockingly cupped to his ear toward the student section.

Marshall, whose games against State and Duke showed his ability to take over a game with the best of them, left the floor enthusiastically and audibly muttering “ACC Champs” repeatedly. These guys came full-circle in the most radical sense of the phrase; when they should have folded and beaten themselves with bad shots or unfocused defense, they asserted themselves and took control in seemingly effortless fashion. This is a tough team, and though I doubted it early in the year, this is a team that possesses that raw emotion (and dislike for Duke) that is necessary to win big games in March. Regardless of the season’s final outcome, after expressing mid-season doubts, they’ve certainly made me a convert.

As Roy said post-game on Saturday: “This was more difficult, no question coming over here and doing it. My team has had to bounce back all year long. We go down to Florida State and lose by 3 million, everyone’s jumping off the bandwagon saying no team is gonna lose like that and be that good of a team and our team kept playing. We lose to Duke and everyone’s got a great opinion about how stupid we are and how bad we are and my team kept playing. The best thing about my team is they’re pretty tough. I mean that’s some pretty big plays they’ve had to bounce back from and I think they’ve done a nice job. Right now they’re ACC regular season champions.”

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