As soon as the dangerous pass got to Wayne Ellington on the wing, I knew there was a chance the Tar Heels were going to leave Clemson after outright stealing a victory.
I didn’t say that I knew the Heels were going to win, I just thought that they had a shot as good as the one Ellington had with the clock winding perilously down.
When the ball swished through the net with 0.4 seconds left, giving Ellington a career-high 36 points and the Heels a rather stunning 90-88 victory, top-ranked or not, I still couldn’t get the nagging thought out of my head: are the Tar Heels really, really good, or just merely good that with a few breaks could win a national championship?
Certainly, this is a title contender. As long as Tyler Hansbrough doesn’t have to face a steady diet of athletic big men in the interior, he’s one of the elite college basketball players of the last several years. And even in getting up just seven field goal attempts on Sunday against Clemson, Hansbrough still managed a double-double with 12 points and 14 rebounds.
And Ellington has emerged a deadly long-range shooter — he may be Carolina’s version of J.J. Redick before he’s done — while point guard Tywon Lawson may be the fastest man in the land with a basketball in his hands. Danny Green would likely start everywhere else in the country, but provides a pretty regular, almost reliable spark off the bench for the Heels.
That said, the team does have deficiencies, at least at this point in the season.
As good as Lawson is, losing reserve guard Bobby Frasor for the season hurts more than anybody will let on. Frasor can play both guard positions, and though he can be a little reckless at the point, he’s miles ahead of Quentin Thomas, who still looks afraid every time he’s on the floor.
And with Lawson’s propensity to get into foul trouble, that could be a big problem in the wrong game. Like the Indianapolis Colts with Jim Sorgi under center, Carolina’s offense looks like a chaotic mess with Thomas running it, and Thomas is a serious liability defensively. So is Frasor, but at least Frasor can be counted on to hit a jumper now and again.
The biggest question is how UNC will stack up against high-quality competition. While the Heels have perhaps played more road games in opponents’ gyms than most of the other elite teams, they haven’t exactly faced the top echelon in college hoops. A watered-down Ohio State. Rutgers. Penn. An under-.500 Kentucky. Not exactly heavyweights.
Still, beating a solid Clemson team in Littlejohn Coliseum is passing a good test. The Heels, though, were down by seven points with just 2:47 to go in regulation, and had just one field goal in overtime — Ellington’s buzzer-beater. They were sluggish in parts, too — the Heels allowed 17 offensive rebounds, several of which actually hit the floor off the rim, negating chances for the Heels to get out and run.
But a win is a win, especially on the road in the ACC. And opening any season with 16 victories from the perch atop the polls is impressive. It’s just still hard to figure exactly how impressive it really is.
We should know by March.