North Carolina’s play fluctuated during the nonconference schedule enough that it is legitimate to question which version of the Tar Heels will show up during Atlantic Coast Conference play.
Given their unpredictability, here are five predictions for the ACC portion of the schedule that takes in consideration the team playing at its best (as in wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky) and at its worst (as in the Belmont and UAB losses.)
1. The Tar Heels' full-court pressure will end up winning a game.
Williams implemented full-court pressure for small stretches in games against Davidson and UNC Wilmington. While it’s far from a look the Heels could use for an entire 40 minutes, it is pretty effective right now and will only get better. My guess is there will be a situation when Carolina is down in the closing minutes of a game and the press helps them rally to win.
The flip side is they haven’t fully gotten used to doing it, so it could prove costly. Texas was able to run on the Heels even after made baskets -- and they weren’t trying to set up pressure then. Imagine what a skilled point guard such as Syracuse's Tyler Ennis could do against them.
2. Carolina will actually win a game with clutch free-throw shooting.
That’s a mind-boggling concept this season. The Heels average nearly 12 missed free throws per game, which more than doubles the average from last season. Although they are shooting 62 percent for the season (and can pinpoint the Belmont and Texas losses on free throws), they might be trending upward. Since Roy Williams laid down the gauntlet after losing to the Longhorns, Carolina has shot 71.5 percent.
There’s really no need to visit the dark side of this prediction, is there? We’ve already seen it, such as when the Heels shot 22-of-48 in the Belmont loss and 24-of-47 in the Texas loss.
Paige, the team’s leading scorer, is the likely candidate because he handles the ball more than anyone else. He led the Tar Heels with nine rebounds against Northern Kentucky and has reached 10 assists in a game once in his career, last season against Florida State. Tokoto has had two double-doubles in scoring and rebounding and another two games when he’s reached five assists. Meeks came close to achieving the feat against Louisville, when he totaled 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.
The flip side is that a triple-double will include double figures in turnovers.
4. Leslie McDonald will tie the school record for most 3-pointers in a game.
Six former Tar Heels, including current assistant coach Hubert Davis, have made eight 3-pointers in a game. The last to do it was Rashad McCants against Clemson on March 2, 2004. McDonald, who is shooting 42.9 percent from behind the line, averages five attempts from behind the arc per game.
The flip side is McDonald might only make one 3-pointer per game the rest of the season. Opponents are already hip to the fact that McDonald and Paige are the Tar Heels' only 3-point threats. Texas and Davidson unleashed a triangle-and-2 defense to defend them. That plan could be copied in the ACC.
5. The Tar Heels will win the ACC.
Heading into conference play, Carolina’s resume wins are as good as any other team in the nation. The Big Ten has four ranked teams and I doubt any will go into East Lansing and win by 14 against Michigan State the way the Heels did. So facing Duke and Syracuse won’t be in the least bit intimidating.
The flip side is the Heels get swept by Duke and lose their only regular-season meeting with the Orange in Syracuse. Those losses would not only prevent them from sitting atop the league, but they end up dropping to fourth thanks to a sneaky good Florida State team that beats the Heels in Tallahassee.