After a sluggish start to the season, North Carolina may have a chance to win the ACC regular-season crown outright with a victory this weekend over its biggest rival.
Roy Williams, however, has warned his players about looking too far ahead.
Before turning their attention to that showdown, the 13th-ranked Tar Heels are first focused on running their winning streak to six at Florida State on Wednesday night.
North Carolina (22-6, 12-2) and Duke are tied atop the ACC and will close out the regular season against one another Saturday in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels lost the first meeting in Durham 79-73 on Feb. 9, but have reeled off five straight wins since.
Although North Carolina was picked to finish third in the ACC one season after going 5-11 in the league, its chance to win the conference title is still a bit surprising considering it lost three of its first seven games overall. It only has three losses in 21 games since.
“We’ve been working all season to make sure we get to this position,” said freshman Harrison Barnes, who had 21 points against the Terrapins. “And it’s been a struggle. We definitely had times where we didn’t think we could do it. But now we’re in this position and we just have to seize the moment.”
Williams isn’t quite ready to think about the possibility of winning the regular-season crown and earning the top seed in the ACC tournament.
“It would mean a great deal,” he said, “but we better be thinking in terms of Florida State and not be thinking about Duke.”
The Tar Heels, however, had no trouble in their first meeting of the season with the Seminoles (20-8, 10-4), beating them 89-69 in Chapel Hill on Feb. 6.
Barnes led all scorers with 17 points, while Tyler Zeller and John Henson each scored 16 and Dexter Strickland added 15. North Carolina frustrated Florida State’s defense, which leads the nation in opponent field goal percentage (36.1), but allowed season highs in points and shooting (55.7 percent) against the Tar Heels.
The Seminoles have been much better on defense since, yielding an average of 64.4 points on 34.6 percent shooting in winning four of their last five games. Still, they could run into trouble again trying to shut down Zeller and Barnes, who combined for 46 points against Maryland.
Florida State’s offense might also have problems with leading scorer Chris Singleton slated to miss his fourth straight game with a broken foot.
Singleton, who is expected to return for the ACC tournament, had a team-best 15 points at North Carolina last month.
Singleton’s replacement, freshman Okaro White, stepped up for the Seminoles on Saturday, hitting a key 10-foot jumper with 31 seconds left in a 65-59 victory over Miami. White led Florida State with seven rebounds and matched Deividas Dulkys with a team-high 17 points.
“He stepped it up when we needed him,” Dulkys said about White. “He’s a very good player. You can’t count him as a freshman.”
This will be the Seminoles’ final game in Tallahassee this season, and they have a chance to go 8-0 at home in ACC play for the first time in school history. They upset top-ranked Duke at the Tucker Center on Jan. 12, but have lost their last four meetings with the Tar Heels there.