North Carolina showed great guts in a comeback win at Florida State. They were down and could have easily lost that game and dropped to 0-3 in ACC play. And North Carolina just does not go 0-3 to start league play.
And they showed in that game against Florida State what I think is the key to this team this season, and that is P.J. Hairston.
Hairston, in high school, was an incredible scorer and when he went to Hargrave Military Academy he was an incredible scorer there, too. He has underachieved in Chapel Hill. He has not been the scorer they thought he was going to be. Well, here against Florida State he comes in up with a career-high 23 points and North Carolina walks out with a win. I think with what we've seen out of North Carolina and, certainly, this is not the North Carolina team we've seen in years past Hairston has got to be a scorer for them to win.
At 3-0 already, is Miami a contender for the ACC title?
What's going to be interesting is to see how they integrate Reggie Johnson back into the lineup once he returns from his broken hand.
But the point guard, Shane Larkin, my goodness what a year he is having. He's doing all his work defensively he leads the league in steals. And what he is doing is he is really disrupting the other teams' offenses, and never was that more evident than in the game against Maryland. He was a disruptive force in that game, and, obviously, Maryland got nothing going offensively and scored just 47 points.
Look at steals in the league: Larkin and Durand Scott are Nos. 1 and 3. When you have your guards who are not letting the other team get into their offense, that's going to cause problems for opponents. And that Miami-Maryland game was a classic example.
I think Miami is a team that's really coming on and its a team that's going to continue to get better.
Jim Larranaga has been awfully demanding of these guys, they all were forced to change the way they played. His system could not be more different that Frank Haith's system was. It has not been an easy transition. And now, these players have finally bought into Larranaga's system, and he's tough on them. And I think Larranaga, as a coach, has proven with what he did by leading a mid-major George Mason program to the Final Four that this guy can coach.
Any concerns for the Hurricanes?
My concern about Miami is this: The team could get worn down.
Shane Larkin leads the league in minutes played. He plays over 36 minutes a game. And I know he's in great shape, but that's tough to do and still be ready to go when you get to March. You also can look at Durand Scott and he's in the top-five in minutes played around the ACC. So your two guards are playing great and playing hard on defense, but it's the middle of January and these two guys are playing big-time minutes. I'm not trying to be negative about it, but I do think Larranaga has to be careful because if you play that many minutes there's no way your body is not going to wear down a little bit.
N.C. State is the talk of the ACC right now. Are you buying in?
First of all, we've seen this over the last couple of years: Good team beats Duke, fans storm the court, but then it's what you do after that. We saw with Florida State last year that they went on to win the ACC Championship for the first time ever after its big win. I'm just hoping that N.C. State realizes that this is just a step in their journey. But they are an excellent team.
Here's the reason I think they're good: I think to win consistently, you can't rely on just one guy, and N.C. State has really solid players at every position. They do have a guy who can take over in C.J. Leslie he is, I think, one of the best athletes in college basketball. He's got long arms and he has really developed his basketball skill set. But even more important: He has developed his attitude. He was so immature when he first came to N.C. State, he was a hothead, he'd get disgruntled very easily. Now, he has become the leader of that team. I think it's as evidenced by what he did in the game as it is what he did after the game while being involved in that celebration, saying, "This is why I came to N.C. State."
Even the point where he picked up the kid who fell out of his wheelchair during the celebration, that all shows maturity. And I think that maturity has not only rubbed off on that team, but is also a big reason they are where they are.
Any other factors for N.C. State jump out at you?
Richard Howell is an absolute beast. You look around college basketball and you see big guys with athletic ability, but you just don't see many beasts. And I mean, this is a guy who, in the huddle, said, "Hey Coach, don't worry about the rebound, I got you." That kind of confidence, I call it a swagger. That kind of swagger leads me to believe that this could be a special year for N.C. State.
Now, you have to understand, that they have been longing for this for 30 years, ever since Jim Valvano's "Cardiac Pack" in 1983.
Sure, they've been to the NCAA Tournament and they've won some decent games, but they haven't had a team with this kind of expectations in a long time. They are within 30 miles of Chapel Hill (UNC) and Durham (Duke), and for years the basketball world has centered around Tobacco Road. And N.C. State hasn't even been in the conversation.
Well, now they're in the conversation.