The Tar Heels simply didn't have their best players on the floor at the same time often enough.
Since Roy Williams adopted a four-guard look with P.J. Hairston in the starting lineup and James Michael McAdoo as the lone big man, North Carolina lost by five at Duke before reeling off six wins in a row. The Tar Heels continued their surge Wednesday night by outclassing Maryland 78-67 in College Park, an impressive result considering the Terps had previously beaten Duke and NC State at home and were desperate for a resume-boosting win.
As a result of its streak, North Carolina has transformed itself from a team that would be lucky to make the NCAA tournament to a team capable of doing some damage when it gets there.
Granted the Tar Heels haven't beaten Duke or Miami during their run, but they've now handled Virginia, NC State and Maryland, all by 10 or more points. Plus, for what its worth, they just look much more confident and much more dangerous.
Hairston, an elite shooter in high school who has struggled from behind the arc at North Carolina, has shot better and showcased other dimensions of his game since entering the starting lineup. The 6-foot-5 sophomore had 22 points against Maryland, increasing his average to 17.7 points per game as a starter.
Also better since the change has been Marcus Paige, the true freshman who inherited the starting point guard job when Kendall Marshall turned pro. Prone to ill-advised shots and turnovers early in the season, Paige has matured into a smarter decision maker the past few weeks, though his turnover-plagued performance Wednesday was a small step backward.
McAdoo, by and large, has been better too since the lineup change, perhaps because he is quicker than many opposing centers and perhaps because the emergence of other scorers besides himself and Reggie Bullock has alleviated some pressure on him. Though McAdoo struggled with Alex Len on Wednesday night and still doesn't look like the lottery pick he was hyped to be, he had averaged 17 points in North Carolina's last four games prior to Wednesday night.
A lot of the credit for North Carolina's improvement has to go to coach Roy Williams for not being too stubborn to ditch his traditional two big man system when it became clear that it wasn't working. There are probably some Tar Heels fans who wish he'd done it sooner when it became clear young big men Joel James, Desmond Hubert and Brice Johnson weren't ready, but it's not easy to stray from a system that has won a pair of national titles.
Regardless, Williams made the move in time for North Carolina to survive the ACC's toughest schedule and play its way into the NCAA tournament.
Now the Tar Heels have a chance to rise as high as a No. 5 or 6 seed and make the type of deep run that seemed highly unlikely as recently as a few weeks ago.
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