UNC Basketball: Takeaways From Florida State


No doubt, Roy Williams had plenty to frown about in North Carolina’s 78-74 win over Florida State on Saturday.

A defense that had allowed opponents to shoot a shade over 40 percent in ACC play and just above 32 percent from 3-point range seemed to have enough breakdowns to allow the pesky Seminoles to hang around. Of course, the largest culprit for FSU’s nipping-at-the-ankles effort came in the tip-of-the-hat performance put forth from Xavier Rathan-Mayes.

The freshman guard accounted for nearly half of the Seminoles’ points, lighting up the Smith Center to the tune of 35 points on 14-of-26 shooting, including 5-of-11 from beyond the arc. But despite the gutty work, FSU still finished at less than 45 percent from the field, and take away Rathan-Mayes’ output Saturday, the Tar Heels held the rest of the Seminoles’ offense to slightly over 37 percent shooting.

So while the canvas that was painted on certainly offered some disjointed strokes at times, North Carolina still came through with a stingy-enough defense and a wonderfully balanced attack to run its victory streak to five, a string that has now propelled the Tar Heels (16-4 overall) into a second-place tie with Notre Dame in the ACC standings at 6-1. And while FSU provided a sterner test than what most pundits and fans were expecting, in the end the Seminoles fell victim to what has fueled North Carolina’s run toward first place in the league race.

Sure, the Tar Heels are still very much a work in progress these days, but Saturday’s win was a microcosm of what has keyed their surge. And while their were several factors that also could bring a smile to the face of Williams and North Carolina fans, here are three that kept the Tar Heels locked in a battle for a conference regular-season title and will still need to figure prominently in an upcoming three-game stretch against the likes of Syracuse, Louisville and second-ranked Virginia:

Marcus Paige is starting to live up to the Player of the Year hype.

As the junior guard weaved his way through the early part of North Carolina’s schedule, he seemed content in more of an observer role. That is not the part the Tar Heels need him to play if they want to bring home any ACC hardware or make a deep run toward a national crown. When the calendar turned to conference play, though, the guy who was tabbed as the league’s preseason player of the year has resumed the lead-actor part, and against the Seminoles finished with 19 points and was the go-to performer when FSU appeared poised to spring the upset.

Over North Carolina’s five-game run, Paige is averaging 14.4 points a game, and a stroke that couldn’t find its mark earlier in the season has now honed in on its range. Paige is shooting over 44 percent during the streak, including nearly 46.5 percent from outside the arc, and if the Tar Heels hope to make a Final Four run come March he will need to keep posting those type of numbers.

The Tar Heels are flexing their muscle inside.

Before the season began, it was established that North Carolina had the potential to feature one of the nation’s more dynamic front courts. Now, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks are starting to fulfill said potential

The only thing that contained Johnson Saturday was, well… Johnson, who picked up his third foul at the 5:35 mark in the first half. The athletic junior forward played only 23 minutes but still finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds for his fourth double-double this season.

During the Tar Heels’ victory streak, Johnson is averaging 14 points and 9.8 boards a contest, and while he’s provided the lightning in North Carolina’s interior, Meeks has been the source of the thunder.

Meeks put up another steady-as-she-goes performance against the Seminoles with 12 points and seven rebounds, and over the North Carolina run he is averaging almost 13 points and nearly seven swipes off the glass. For the third time in the last five games, the Tar Heels ended with 40 or more points in the paint (42) and are averaging just under 41 points an outing in the area.

Combined the duo is averaging over 25 points and 16 boards in ACC play while shooting better than 54 percent from the floor. The electric production inside combined with the stepped-up play from Paige on the perimeter, if continued, will make North Carolina one of the country’s more complete teams and offer the ideal inside-out offense its coach loves to build around.

Justin Jackson is starting to emerge.

Look eight miles away and you will find the player who appears to have a solid grip on not only the conference’s Freshman of the Year award but also its Player of the Year honor.

Duke center Jahlil Okafor has done little to dispel the preseason accolades that were thrown his way, but if he wasn’t having the season that most likely will make him the top pick in June’s NBA Draft, it might be Jackson who would be garnering the rookie-of-the-year attention.

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Like Paige, the freshman forward his now starting to live up to the expectations the McDonald’s All-American brought with him to Chapel Hill. Jackson ended with a tidy 14 points and four rebounds against FSU, and over the last five games is averaging 12.4 points per game. He also has found his rhythm on the court shooting 55.8 percent during the run.

One glaring weakness that continues to offer a disapproving glare is the Tar Heels’ lack of a consistent perimeter shooter other than Paige. North Carolina has buried 20 3-pointers during its five-game surge, of which Paige has accounted for 13 of the makes.

As efficient as Jackson has been inside the arc, if he can develop some consistency beyond it he could fill an obvious need and make the Tar Heels one of the nation’s more dangerous teams come March.