On Holiday: The state of North Carolina

On Holiday is College Basketball Nation's daily rundown of holiday tournaments, complete with previews, recaps, and links to all of the early-season tournament info you'll need in the weeks to come. Please excuse any typos. It is hard to type while whimpering in the fetal position.


TOP STORY: Big Sunday in North Carolina. "The No. 24 Tar Heels haven’t had a November win that warranted such an impromptu celebration in a while. Just one week ago, the Heels’ loss to Belmont was just their second nonconference home defeat during Williams’ tenure. The program also has been carrying an albatross of uncertainty while awaiting a final judgment on the status of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. That’s why a little celebration was in order. Carolina needed this one. 'Since June 5 it’s not been a very pleasant time it’s been probably the most difficult time I’ve had as a coach,' Williams said. 'It has not been fun in any way, shape or form. But today, out on that court watching their excitement, bumping with them, then going in the locker room celebrating, that’s what I coach for.'" — C.L. Brown, on UNC's immensely impressive 93-84 win over No. 3 Louisville in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off title game Saturday, ESPN.com

But that's not all North Carolina could get happy about Sunday. The state at large had an excellent Sunday, as Charlotte -- which entered the weekend unmentioned and unloved -- toppled Michigan 63-61 in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off finale. The 49ers shot 46.2 percent from 3 to Michigan's 21.7 percent, and won the thanks to a last-second, game-deciding Terrence Williams layup, but those key facts tell only a small portion of the story. Charlotte looked crisp and cohesive throughout, quicker to loose balls and more aggressive around the rim. Michigan looked uncharacteristically disjointed.

Alan Major's team has improved every year but has never really sniffed the NCAA tournament. This season, Major's fourth, may be the breakthrough. At the very least, Charlotte is the early favorite to win Conference USA -- and their presence might make that woebegone league a bit better than anyone expected.

(Also, Duke survived Vermont 91-90 at home. That wasn't a holiday thing, and Coach K certainly wasn't feeling celebratory afterward, but it fits nicely into the North Carolina theme, so hey, there you go.)

Georgetown was feeling the love, too: After a loss to Northeastern in the first round in Puerto Rico last week, Georgetown fans were understandably sent on a downward spiral of rage and ennui. (Fortunately for the rest of us, they're really funny when they're mad.) But the Hoyas got one back Sunday, beating VCU 84-80. The win was made even more impressive in that it was played at the Rams' pace: The two teams exchanged 80 possessions, which, given the Hoyas' typical stylistic sloth, felt like even more-- though there were 61 fouls called, which is a lot even in 80 possessions. Georgetown scored 55 points in the second half; Markel Starks, D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Joshua Smith scored 23, 26 and 17, respectively.

On the flip side: Is it time to start worrying about VCU? The Rams are now 4-2 with losses to unranked Florida State and Georgetown; their only win in Bayamon was a not particularly impressive 73-67 strugglefest against Long Beach State. The most disconcerting thing: VCU is forcing plenty of their trademark turnovers -- 28 percent of opponents' possessions, to be exact -- but shooting so poorly on the offensive end, and giving so much away at the foul line, that it almost doesn't matter.

Elsewhere: New Mexico rebounded from a Charleston Classic semifinal loss to UMass, while UMass held on against local favorite Clemson to a) move to 6-0 on the season, b) win the Charleston title and c) further convince yours truly that Derrick Kellogg's speedy group has finally cracked the code.


THE MAUI INVITATIONAL (bracket). Perhaps you've heard of it? The marquee early-season tournament -- the one that started the whole trend in the early 1980s -- commences its 30th competition on Monday. The anniversary field might not be the murderer's row that was 2011, but it is a typically solid, even sneaky-good field.

Syracuse is the favorite, but hardly a guarantee. Ahead of Arkansas-California's 3 p.m. tip, the Orange look like the strongest team in the field -- with a caveat. Yes, Syracuse is 4-0, but its wins -- particularly its most recent, a diabolically ugly 56-50 survival of St. Francis at the Carrier Dome -- have showcased the team's struggles to replace guards Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. Syracuse has shot just 31.8 percent from 3 thus far, and 46.6 percent inside the arc; even worse, the Orange have made just 61.7 percent from the free throw line. What's worse? The Orange, who almost always defy the convention that opponents' 3-point range can be a function of defensive excellence (and never more so than in 2012-13) have allowed foes to knock down 37 percent from beyond the arc -- 259th in the country. There is plenty of good news: Syracuse's zone is still dominant on the low block, senior forward C.J. Fair is probably the best player in the tournament, and if freshman point guard Tyler Ennis comes into his own in Maui, what Sean Keely said: Look out.

Other Maui notes:

  • The sneaky-good reference above has a lot to do with California, which has played top-15 defense -- and blown out a better-than-you-think Denver team, 77-50 -- to date.

  • The Baylor Bears are officially the "non-Syracuse team most likely to win the tournament, at least on paper," because "at least on paper" must always be applied to Scott Drew's talented but occasionally incoherent group. Brady Heslip is still making 3s at a crazy rate (51.9 percent), Cory Jefferson has stepped into the lead usage role, and Isaiah Austin, despite offensive struggles, is blocking 15.9 percent of opponents' shots. But the Bears are losing too many possessions (20.8) to turnovers, and gaining almost none of them back; their 12.9 percent opponent turnover percentage is one of the lowest in the country.

  • Oh, by the way, Gonzaga is in this field too. The Zags haven't lost a step on offense without 2012-13 star forward Kelly Olynyk; Gonzaga has averaged 1.18 points per trip to date. That's thanks in large to part to Kevin Pangos, who has made 14 of his 32 3s, good for a 136.9 offensive rating on 25.2-percent usage in four games to date.

  • Finally, the Maui also offers a good look at the Gophers of Minnesota, who have been one of the most paper-impressive teams of November. Four of Minnesota's five wins have come at home against inferior opponents, sure, but all of them have been convincing, and their 74-59 Nov. 16 win at Richmond was a legitimately quality victory. New coach Richard Pitino doesn't quite have Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins playing as fast as he advertised in the offseason, but Minnesota has picked up the pace significantly, and at any speed, those two key holdovers from the Tubby Smith era have played brilliantly thus far. Monday's opening round matchup against Syracuse should be fascinating.

Elsewhere: Providence and Maryland both handled business (against La Salle and Northern Iowa, respectively) to get to Monday's 10 p.m. ET Paradise Jam final; it was nice to have at least one tournament this weekend that made any semblance of sense … the CBE Classic and Legends Classic, both two-day, four-team championship round events, tip off as well. Enjoy.