No opponent is too formidable for North Carolina to beat or too inferior to beat the Tar Heels.
North Carolina cemented its reputation for the bizarre and unpredictable on Wednesday night in East Lansing, toppling No. 1 Michigan State 79-65 in one of the marquee games of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. The outcome secured a 6-6 tie for the ACC in the challenge and ensured the Tar Heels would end the night with an unrivaled collection of quality wins and surprising losses.
The roller coaster ride started when North Carolina lost at home to Belmont on Nov. 17. It continued when the Tar Heels bounced back by upsetting defending national champion Louisville a week later in the title game of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off. Next came a road loss to unheralded UAB on Sunday night. And finally Wednesday's road win at Michigan State, which made North Carolina the first team in five seasons to defeat the No. 1 team and the defending national champion in non-league play.
It's difficult to make sweeping judgments about a team as schizophrenic as North Carolina, but this much is clear after watching the Tar Heels pull away from Michigan State in the second half just like they did against Louisville two weeks earlier. North Carolina would be a better team were wings P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald available to play, but it's still capable of playing with anyone as long as its young big men score enough to help make up for the loss of perimeter production.
Sophomore forward Brice Johnson continued his strong start to the season, protecting the rim on defense and scoring 14 points by attacking the offensive glass and finishing in transition. Freshman Kennedy Meeks provided a perfect complement to Johnson by playing his best game since delivering a double-double against Louisville, using his girth and soft touch around the rim to score 15 points, grab seven rebounds.
Surprisingly enough, North Carolina also got some production from its wing position, a rarity with Hairston still unable to play. J.P. Tokoto and Nate Britt combined for 25 points, helping to make up for off shooting nights from standout point guard Marcus Paige and struggling forward James Michael McAdoo.
What had to be most troubling for previously unbeaten Michigan State was the way the Tar Heels outclassed the Spartans in areas previously considered strengths.
Effort plays? North Carolina beat the Spartans to loose balls all night. Rebounding? The Tar Heels produced numerous second-chance opportunities and emerged with a 49-38 edge on the glass. Fast break chances? North Carolina repeatedly turned errant Michigan State jump shots into transition buckets on the other end.
Michigan State deserves some slack considering Gary Harris was hobbled by an ankle injury, Adreian Payne was slowed by cramps and Keith Appling missed time late in the first half with a hip pointer caused by a scary fall that sent him tumbling to the ground. Still, this was not a performance on either end of the floor befitting a team expected to contend for the national championship this season.
As for North Carolina, this win will leave everyone from fans, to analysts, to even its own coaching staff puzzled.
At its worst, North Carolina has shown it is susceptible to upsets by opponents who can't match its talent or pedigree. But at their best, the Tar Heels have also now proven they can't be overlooked by anyone.
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