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UNC 77, FSU 72: A New Hope?

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After dropping its first two ACC games in similar fashion, Carolina finds a way to make plays down the stretch and earn their first conference win.

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

While a lot of fans hoped UNC's home win against UNLV was a turning point for the season, the Heels managed to have the fan base doing a collective facepalm as they dropped to 0-2 in the conference with a similar pattern: the game stays close for about 30 minutes, with both teams going back and forth and Carolina looking like a capable offensive team (for occasional 5-minute stretches), only to have the Heels collectively crap the bed down the stretch and let things slip away on both ends of the floor. The loss to Miami was especially disconcerting given that they were playing at home (where they have looked like a decidedly different team) with the Canes' best player missing (Reggie Johnson, who would have absolutely eaten UNC's post players alive - possibly literally) and having come off a loss to UVA that supplied ample motivation. After that game, I was all but ready to throw in the towel for the season and prepare myself for more "N-I-T!" chants from opposing fan bases next year. But somehow, that same Carolina team managed to travel all the way down to Tallahassee and take the court just over 40 hours later and gut out a win against FSU. Whaaaaa? I don't know what to think anymore. Let's take a look at reasons for optimism and pessimism coming out of this game:

Reason for Optimism - The Heels got great production from their bench
This, ultimately, was the deciding factor in the game. P.J. Hairston picked a good day to go for a career high, breaking out of his 2-game "slump" where he had scored just 5 and 8 against UVA and Miami, respectively, to go for 24 points against the 'Noles. Even more surprisingly, the guy who really stood out in this game was Jackson Simmons, who grabbed 4 offensive boards, went 3-3 for 8 points, and generally made good things happen on both ends of the floor. Both guys raised Carolina's intensity level in the second half when the game looked like it could have gone either way - Hairston especially has the ability to set the tone in terms of effort for UNC as a team, and him having a big second half is a good sign because Carolina has been really poor at finishing games this year.

Reason for Pessimism - Wait, THOSE are the guys we're counting on?
Let's get real here: Hairston is still pretty erratic for all his talent, and Simmons can't possibly be counted on to have that kind of ultra-efficient performance on a game-in, game-out basis. In fact, Simmons nearly made a critical mistake when, at the 1-minute mark and the Heels were up 3, he turned the ball over and clobbered Terrance Shannon on a foul that somehow didn't get called leading to a Marcus Paige "steal" and keeping the Heel's lead intact. Meanwhile, for as aggressive as Hairston was all day - for which we would like to WILDLY applaud him and hope that it keeps rubbing off on some of his teammates - he still took several shots of the "no no NO NO yesssssss" variety and has just as many games scoring under 10 points as he does games scoring 15 or more.

Reason for Optimism - Our best players didn't even play as well as they could have!
James Michael McAdoo went for 14 and 8, Reggie Bullock chipped in 12 and 8 and Dexter Strickland had just a meager 4 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. Just imagine what happens if each of those guys reach their collective potential!

Reason for Pessimism - Our best players continue to not play as well as they could have.
This is becoming more of a worrying statistical trend than just a blip on the radar - Dex has given us almost nothing in ACC play thus far, and while JMM and Bullock are getting decent numbers, neither is taking control of games in a way that UNC fans really hoped would happen at the start of this year. All three guys are kind of a strong, silent type - which, while frequently requested on craigslist under "looking for love," doesn't really lend itself to winning on the court. There were flickers of hope from McAdoo in the FSU game where, when his perimeter shot wasn't falling and he decided to take it strong to the basket. With his ridiculously quick first step being probably the best weapon in his big-man arsenal, you would like to see him do that more often... but then, of course, he'd have to make free throws (62% on the season), so it's a mixed bag, really.

Reason for Optimism - It's a road win! Against a quality opponent!
Easily Carolina's first decent win away from home this year, UNC managed to put up 77 points on the road (where they have struggled to score this year) against a defensive-minded team. I get the feeling the Heels will continue their struggles on defense for the rest of the year, but the offensive production is at least nice.

Reason for Pessimism - Wait, did I say "quality"? Have you looked at FSU's resume?
The Seminoles might be a bigger head-scratcher than UNC this year, having beaten BYU (kenpom's #32 team) but losing to such traditional powerhouses as Southern Alabama (kenpom #195), Mercer (#167) and Auburn (#155). Don't mistake a back-and-forth game for being a battle between two good teams when it might just have been a fight for who is more erratic this year.

Overall, it's a reason for cautious optimism for the Heels. It appears that effort-wise, they are trying to up their game and figuring out what it takes to finish games, especially against teams just as desperate for wins as they are. While I previously had both hands over my eyes bracing for the crash, I now have one eye peeking through, hoping that Roy Williams' recent record of having teams on the upswing towards the end of a season can continue. But man, watching that Duke-State game earlier in the day, it's hard to compare the level of play in that game with anything UNC has put out on the court this year. As they say: once is a fluke, twice is a trend, three times is a habit - Carolina's got to show me they can win more than one ACC game on the road to convince me this is a top-3 team in the league. I'm certainly not ready to say that just yet.