Setting the Stage

With its victory over Maryland Sunday evening in the Smith Center, North Carolina has put itself in a position where they are assured a chance of at least a tie of the ACC regular season title when they face off against Duke next Saturday night.
UNC (22-6, 12-2 ACC) plays at Florida State and then in the Dean Dome against Duke in its final two regular season games, a monumental series of showdowns against the other two schools in the top three in the standings along with the Tar Heels themselves.
Carolina can still win the ACC title outright, and they can finish no worse than in a second place tie with Florida State.
It's quite a jump from last year's midseason letdown that resulted in a losing conference record and a trip to the NIT for Carolina.
That obviously won't be the situation this go-around.
Some may be a little shocked at Carolina's quick rise back to prominence in the ACC standings, but the players themselves are anything but.
"We want to win the ACC regular season. We want to win the ACC Tournament. We want to win the national championship," said freshman point guard Kendall Marshall.
"It (this latest win) is just a stepping stone. We realize that we have more things we want to accomplish, and we've got to keep thriving ahead," he added.
On the whole this is still a young basketball team North Carolina has---six freshmen and sophomores among its top eight players---but they seem to be getting hungrier, stronger, and more cohesive with each passing game.
They've weathered storms on the road, figured ways to fight back from behind, managed to keep leads despite late challenges, and they've handed out a couple old fashioned blowouts.
In short, they're playing Carolina basketball again.
"We're just having more confidence, just gaining confidence each and every game," said guard Dexter Strickland. "It helps us out to experience having that mental toughness."
"We've just got to keep this edge that we've got, just getting better every day in practice," said freshman Reggie Bullock.
"At this time of the season, we've just got to go out and play hard every game. We can't come up with any little mistakes because we're in great position right now heading into the tournaments," Bullock added.
For the one senior in Carolina's lineup, this scenario---having a chance to win the ACC title and play deep into the postseason---is the very reason why he decided to come to Chapel Hill for his final collegiate season.
"I was looking to come in and be a part of a team that's very successful and get a deep run in the (NCAA) Tournament," said forward Justin Knox.
"We're playing very good right now. We're real focused, but we can be even better than where we are right now, so we're looking forward to these next couple of games and the rest of the season," Knox added.
The Tar Heels continue to play stellar defense, which again made the difference in the win over Maryland.
The Terrapins are the sixth straight UNC opponent that shot below 44 percent against the Tar Heel resistance.
Five of those games were victories for Carolina.
"I think we're doing a great job defensively. That's one area we know if we're not hitting shots, we can buckle down on defense and cover for missing all the shots," said junior forward Tyler Zeller, whose 25 points led the way for UNC against Maryland.
"I think our defense can create a lot of points for our perimeter players getting in the passing lanes, getting out running, getting easy baskets, getting our confidence up---just things of that such," added Marshall.
Perhaps the one big critique that can still be made of this UNC team is that they're taking a little bit too many three-pointers, and they're still having trouble making them.
UNC was six-of-21 from three-point range against the Terrapins Sunday evening, and going back over its last six games, the Tar Heels are a miserable 22-of-103 (21.3 percent) from beyond the arc.
But even with its problems making outside shots, this North Carolina squad continues to win game after another.
It makes one think that if the Tar Heels ever do find their shooting touch from outside, they're going to be extremely dangerous for anyone in their path.
"The season is narrowing down, so we've just got to concentrate on the shots we take---take smart shots---and just play as a team," said Bullock.
"We're getting great shots. It's just a matter of them going in and staying on the offensive boards," added Marshall.
So it all comes down to two regular season games.
Two games that will go a very long way in shaping Carolina's postseason seeding and where they'll end up playing in the NCAAs.
It makes for an exciting set of circumstances---a scenario that is bringing the buzz back about Tar Heel basketball as the weather warms up and spring starts peeking out from the pine trees.
It's surely a welcome thing once again in Chapel Hill.