North Carolina found itself in trouble last month after yet another costly ACC loss. Nine consecutive wins later, the Tar Heels need two more in the last four games to clinch a double-bye in the ACC tournament.
Having re-entered the Top 25 this week at No. 19 after a seven-week absence, North Carolina seeks its first 10-game run since its 2008-09 national championship season Wednesday night at North Carolina State.
An 11-7 overall record and 1-4 conference mark after a loss at Virginia on Jan. 20 are distant memories for North Carolina (20-7, 10-4), which completed a 4-0, eight-day stretch with Saturday's 105-72 home win over Wake Forest. The Tar Heels shot 57.4 percent and went 11 of 15 on 3-pointers en route to their highest scoring output of the season.
"Everything looks so much better when the ball goes in the basket," coach Roy Williams told the school's official website. "And that's what happened (on Saturday). We've played pretty good basketball here in this whole stretch, not just in these eight days."
Leslie McDonald had 19 points after scoring a game-high 21 in Thursday's home win over Duke. Six North Carolina players reached double figures against the Demon Deacons.
North Carolina has had the advantage of playing three of its last four at home, and three of its final four contests will be away from Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have won three in a row on the road but are 4-4 in true road games, the result of three straight ACC road losses prior to the winning streak.
"Nobody on this team wants to go back to that place," said forward James Michael McAdoo, second on the team with 14.4 points per game. "We don't want to have a bunch of what-ifs at this point in the season. We all have big goals and aspirations, so I think that just helps us become hungrier."
A win at North Carolina State (17-10, 7-7) would complete an unbeaten February, which started with an 84-70 home win over the Wolfpack on Feb. 1. McDonald scored 20 points while McAdoo had 16 and 13 rebounds.
With two more wins, the Tar Heels would be off for the first two rounds of the conference tournament. They're in fourth place and seeking one of the ACC's four double byes.
Earning one of those victories may require containing North Carolina State's T.J. Warren, the conference's top scorer with 23.3 points per game. He's been especially dominant in the last four contests, averaged 27.0 points after a 31-point effort in Saturday's 71-64 win at Virginia Tech that ended the Wolfpack's two-game skid.
"T.J. was aggressive and did a great job," coach Mark Gottfried told the school's official website. "He does so much to help our team. He's a tough player to defend."
The Wolfpack play three of their last four at home, where they've won four straight. In seventh place in the ACC and with an 0-3 record against Top 25 opponents, they're in need of a big win to boost their NCAA tournament hopes.
Such victories haven't often come against North Carolina, winner of 15 of the last 16 meetings. However, the then-No. 18 Wolfpack won 91-83 at Raleigh on Jan. 26, 2013, with Warren scoring 19 off the bench in his first game against North Carolina.
North Carolina preview
North Carolina (20-7, 10-4 ACC) at NC State (17-10, 7-7 ACC)
Game time: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 8 p.m. — PNC Arena in Raleigh
Television: ACC Network
PG — 12 Tyler Lewis (5-11, 170, Soph., 4.1 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 3.5 apg)
SG — 22 Ralston Turner (6-5, 205, R-Jr., 10.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 0.8 apg)
SF — 24 T.J. Warren (6-8, 215, Soph., 23.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.7 spg)
PF — 32 Kyle Washington (6-9, 225, Fr., 5.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 0.5 apg)
C — 14 Jordan Vandenberg (7-1, 245, 5th-Sr., 4.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.7 apg, 1.4 bpg)
PG — 5 Marcus Paige (6-1, 175, Soph., 16.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.6 spg)
SG — 2 Leslie McDonald (6-5, 215, 5th-Sr., 11.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.5 apg)
SF — 13 J.P. Tokoto (6-5, 200, Soph., 9.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.7 spg)
PF — 43 James Michael McAdoo (6-9, 230, Jr., 14.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.0 bpg)
C — 3 Kennedy Meeks (6-9, 290, Fr., 7.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.9 bpg)
Location: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Nickname: Tar Heels
2012-13 record: 25-11 overall, 12-6 ACC (third)
2013 postseason: Lost 70-58 to Kansas in the third round of the NCAA Tournament
Coach: Roy Williams 26th overall (720-187) and 11th at UNC (302-86)
Series: UNC leads 149-76
Last meeting: North Carolina won 84-70 on Feb. 1, 2014, in Chapel Hill
North Carolina: Overview: North Carolina came out aggressive early and delivered several body blows to NC State to build a comfortable double-digit lead throughout in the first meeting at the Dean E. Smith Center. Four different UNC players cracked double figures with fifth-year senior shooting guard Leslie McDonald leading the way with 20 points. The Tar Heels are in the midst of a nine-game winning streak. UNC has started to shed the label of playing up or down to the level of the competition during ACC action.
Backcourt: North Carolina hasn't overcome the self-inflicted loss of junior wing P.J. Hairston, but the starting duo of sophomore point guard Marcus Paige and McDonald have settled down the situation. Although he began the year playing off the ball, Paige has emerged as one of the top point guards in the ACC. The 6-1, 175-pound lefty Paige has scored in double figures in all but three games this season, and poured in a season-high 32 points in the 93-84 win over Louisville Nov. 24. He is shooting 38.7 percent from three-point land, and has topped 20 points in eight contests. The 6-5, 215-pound McDonald was suspended for the first nine games, but UNC went 7-2 during that span. McDonald is averaging 11.3 points per game and shooting 31.7 percent from beyond the arc. McDonald eclipsed his 20-point effort against NC Stae with 21 against Duke, and had 19 and went 5 of 6 on three-pointers for 19 against Wake Forest. Freshman point guard Nate Britt and Gardner-Webb transfer Luke Davis, the older brother of NC State redshirt sophomore defensive end Drew Davis, supply depth when called upon. The 5-11, 165-pound Britt averages 5.3 points and 2.3 assists per game, while shooting just 36.6 percent from the field.
Frontcourt: The lack of guards and wings is partly because North Carolina has seven scholarship post players. Athletic sophomore small forward J.P. Tokoto is the lone wing with freshman power forward Isaiah Hicks his backup, while playing out of position. UNC pounded the ball inside against NC State in the first meeting, with junior power forward James Michael McAdoo, freshman center Kennedy Meeks and sophomore power forward Brice Johnson. The 6-9, 230-pound McAdoo is averaging 14.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, while shooting 47.1 percent from the field. McAdoo has struggled at the line (52.7 percent) this season and throughout his career. He had a season-high 27 points and 13 rebounds in the loss to Belmont Nov. 17, and had 24 points and 12 boards in the win over Pittsburgh Feb. 15. The 6-9, 290-pound Meeks scored a season-high 23 points on 11 of 12 shooting, and grabbed seven boards against Florida State on Feb. 17. Meeks is averaging 7.9 points and 6.1 rebounds, while shooting 56.7 percent from the field. The athletic but slender 6-9, 210-pound Johnson is one of the top sixth men in the country. Johnson is averaging 10.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 19.8 minutes per game, while shooting 55.5 percent from the field. He would be a starter at the majority of other colleges. Johnson had a season-high 24 points and 12 boards against Richmond on Nov. 23, and tallied an ACC-best 19 points plus seven boards against Maryland on Feb. 4. Juniors Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons, sophomore Joel James and the aforementioned Hicks give UNC seven players who are 6-7 or taller. Hubert and James both log minutes at center behind Meeks.