CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – If you want to measure the massive growth of the North Carolina Tar Heels, let the two games against Wake Forest be your yardstick.
Game one was Jan. 5 in Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons did not trail over the final 21 minutes and won comfortably, 73-67.
Game two was Saturday in Chapel Hill. North Carolina won so easily that human victory cigar Wade Moody (referred to as "the little sucker" by Roy Williams) played the final five minutes and made his first two baskets of the season in a 105-72 romp. This noon tip set up as a classic trap game after the emotional defeat of rival Duke on Thursday night, but Carolina refused to be flat.
The first Wake game began the Heels' 1-4 stagger into Atlantic Coast Conference play. They were 11-7 a month ago and seemingly ticketed for the NIT. There wasn't much to like about Ol' Roy's team.
Today the Tar Heels are 20-7 and 10-4 in the ACC. They are a lock to re-enter the top 25 on Monday after a most un-Carolina-like seven-week absence. Coming off this blowout of Wake, the only postseason question now is how high they will be seeded in the NCAA tournament.
"Our kids have shown a lot greater attention to details," Williams said. "They've shown a greater sense of urgency."
"We rollin' now," said shooting guard Leslie McDonald.
No player has been a bigger factor in this recent roll than McDonald, the senior who sat out the first nine games of the year under an NCAA suspension. When he came back, McDonald was a scatter-shooting perimeter gunner for a month: he averaged a shot every 2.5 minutes he was on the court, and 61 percent of them were 3-pointers. He made just 31 percent of his 3s and, worse, only 38 percent of his two-point shots.
During the current nine-game winning streak, McDonald has gotten more selective – and more accurate. He's hoisted a shot every 3.2 minutes of playing time, and he's made 44 percent of them (he's shot 60 percent from two-point range). Against Wake, McDonald had his best 3-point shooting day of the year, making 5 of 6.
"I think they are playing with a lot more confidence right now," Wake coach Jeff Bzdelik said. "I think McDonald is really starting to get in the groove because he missed so many games early on."
Bzdelik's team, meanwhile, is in the perfectly wrong groove. The Demon Deacons (14-13, 4-10) have lost seven straight, and if there were any doubt in athletic director Ron Wellman's mind about whether he should give his embattled coach a fifth year on the job, this performance should have eradicated it.
Wake Forest was indifferent defensively, surrendering its most points in six years. Bzdelik appeared incapable of lighting any kind of fire in his players, and he made a couple of bad personnel decisions late in the first half. He kept forwards Devin Thomas and Arnaud Adala Moto on the floor with two fouls each, and both picked up their third fouls in the final 15 seconds of the half. Adala Moto was useless in the second half after that, scoring two points and failing to grab a rebound.
An unpopular hire to begin with, Bzdelik has done nothing to win over the Wake Forest fan base. The program was showing incremental improvement since his brutal first season finished 8-24, but the Demon Deacons appear headed to their fourth consecutive losing record after three straight winning seasons under fired coach Dino Gaudio.
Wellman stood by Bzdelik last season in the face of fan unrest. It would be an almost impossible stance to maintain if this season continues on its current trajectory.
UNC, meanwhile, is on a diametrically opposite trajectory. But McDonald said he doesn't think the Heels would be where they are today without the struggles of November, December and January.
"Without those lessons, we wouldn't be the team we are right now," he said. "We learned a lot. We turned it around."
The next challenge will be handling the national rush back onto the powder-blue bandwagon. Early Season Carolina didn't deal well with the praise that accompanied victories over Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky – the Heels lost at UAB in the first game after beating the Cardinals, and lost at home to Texas in the first game after beating the Wildcats.
If North Carolina reacts well to its return to prominence, look out. This is not a team blessed with a transcendent individual star, but the cumulative talent of players 1 through 9 stacks up well against most of the nation's best team. The Tar Heels will not be a group anyone relishes playing in a single-elimination tournament come March.