Posted by Matt Norlander
Anybody hotter than North Carolina? Nope.
The 24-6, 13th-ranked Tar Heels are no longer hiding, no longer lurking, no longer considered a dark horse in any sense of the term. Roy Williams' team won the ACC tonight — something thought to be impossible what, three, four, five weeks ago? — with an 81-67 win over No. 4 Duke. It was the seventh straight win for a team that finished 14-2 in-conference. Once again, North Carolina is nationally recognized as a team with Final Four caliber, NBA talent and a dangerous MO.
It was like this two years ago, when, you know, the Heels won the national title. Can't believe it's only been two years? That's how bad the 2009-10 season was for UNC, when it went to the NIT finals.
Tonight, CBS got a game with a lot of intensity, but not a lot of doubt. In fact, the most questionable thing about anyone wearing baby blue: UNC fans storming the floor afterward. What was that about?
Digressing. Let's move on.
Carolina winning the ACC is all too interesting because many gave up once UNC it had really close wins against Virginia and Virginia Tech, then culminated that dangerous play with a 78-58 loss at Georgia Tech on Jan. 16.
It was UNC's first loss in the conference. Many overreacted. That happens with regularity now. Fortunately, the college basketball season lends itself to many chances and a longer road for teams to prove themselves. In that context, UNC no longer has anything to prove to anyone.
But here comes conference and Big Dance tournament play, and that's an entirely different universe.
The Heels can get a two seed (it will get a three at worst) if they wins the ACC tournament. That's going to be tough, sure, but it's definitely doable. Now, going forward, the conversation and focus will turn to how UNC will play with everyone expecting it to do well. Now reaching the Sweet 16 is considered the minimum. For so long, this was a group fighting against its critics. Now it's got cheerleaders. Loads of them.
Harrison Barnes (love the Barnesbot meme that's developed, for the record) has swelled with confidence and a jump shot that won't quit. That's as much of it as Kendall Marshall's play, and the terrific defense, and the ability for Carolina to run a secondary break that's improved as the months have gone by. Fun team, and nobody's looking past it.
A lingering, final thought. The way UNC has come back to play at the expectation level many had for it in the preseason — it's sort of like UConn. Only UConn started high and gradually came back to its anticipated landing spot. UNC's now taken off.
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