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February 27, 2011At this point a year ago, North Carolina faced the distinct possibility that it would not make the NCAA Tournament field, just one season after winning the national championship.
Now the Tar Heels not only know they will be playing in the NCAA Tournament again, they also have a legitimate shot to finish first in the ACC's final regular-season standings, thanks to Virginia Tech's 64-60 win against Duke in Blacksburg, Va., on Saturday.
When UNC (21-6, 11-2 in the ACC) plays Maryland (18-10, 7-6) tonight at 7:45 p.m. at the Smith Center, the Tar Heels can remain in a tie with the Blue Devils, each with two losses and two league games left to be played.
"This team has been through everything," freshman forward Harrison Barnes said. "The biggest thing we're trying to focus on now is playing to our potential, playing to the level we know we can play at and not having to grind it out every game."
A worthy goal perhaps, but the likelihood of not having to grind in these final three games is somewhat unrealistic, given the quality of the opposition.
To finish in first alone, the Tar Heels must defeat the Terrapins, then Florida State on the road Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Tallahassee and, finally, close out the regular season with a victory against No. 1-ranked Duke on March 5 at the Smith Center at 8 p.m.
For 19th-ranked Carolina, this is the most difficult stretch of the conference season. Maryland is second in the ACC in scoring (78 points per game), first in field-goal percentage (48 percent), third in field-goal percentage defense (39.8 percent).
Terrapins' 6-foot-10 sophomore Jordan Williams is fifth in the league in scoring (17.2 ppg), first in rebounding (11.5 rpg) and first in field-goal percentage (55.7).
The Tar Heels lead the ACC in field-goal percentage defense (39.7 percent) and rebounding margin (plus-6.3 pg).
"We can make it difficult for you around the basket," Coach Roy Williams said.
From a statistical standpoint, the two teams are virtually identical. Each is unselfish. Maryland leads the ACC in assists per game with 17.4 to 15.2 for UNC.
UNC is undefeated in the conference at home this season, but just because this game is in Chapel Hill does not make it a sure thing for Carolina. Maryland's eight victories in the Smith Center are second only to Duke's 10.
Roy Williams has had his troubles with the Terrapins and Gary Williams through the years, too. The Tar Heel alumnus is 6-7 in his career against Maryland, which includes an 0-2 record at Kansas. One of those games came during the Final Four the season Maryland won the national championship under Gary Williams.
So, yes, UNC has a golden opportunity to finish in first place. This team, as Carolina's Williams predicted from the start of the season, has improved throughout the year.
The Tar Heels are 17-3 after starting 4-3 in November.
Many of the victories, particularly here of late, have been defensive struggles, with low shooting percentages. This is especially true of Carolina's 3-point shooting. UNC has shot 19.5 percent (16 for 82) from 3-point range in its past five games.
John Henson, one of the key reasons Carolina is so strong around the basket on defense and in rebounding, says the Tar Heels' have gotten better in the most important area of the game.
"I think it's mental toughness and focusing," Henson said. "That is something that we do. We can be down 15, 20 points and be able to come back. Some teams don't have that."
Falling behind by a large margin in any of these last three games would not be advisable, given the quality of the opponents. If there was ever a time for the Tar Heels to develop some consistency in their shooting, it is now.
One way to do that is to remember their offense is best when it begins with Henson, Tyler Zeller and Justin Knox on the blocks.
"Our big men are the backbone of our team," freshman point guard Kendall Marshall said. "If it wasn't for them, I know we wouldn't be in the position we are. We have to keep feeding them [on offense].
"Defensively, they basically start everything for us."
And defense is where this team gets started on most nights. Tonight is unlikely to be an exception.