Tar Heels win six out of seven, but are they truly off the NCAA Tournament bubble?

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UNC will showcase fancy new threads on Saturday
No. That’s the answer to the question above. North Carolina, despite its recent winning streak and reasonably impressive 16-6 overall (6-3 ACC) record, still faces NIT jeopardy.

The Tar Heels have avoided losing to any bad teams during conference play, but they’ve also failed to defeat any good ones. They’ve dropped all three contests against the upper-tier ACC squads they’ve encountered: Miami, N.C. State and Virginia. Given that the Heels mostly performed poorly during the non-conference schedule, they’ll need to notch one or two eye-catching wins to solidify a place in the tournament field.

And yet, despite that caveat, you can’t help but feel the team has improved substantially. Even the lone defeat during the current span, to the Wolfpack in Raleigh, featured a surprising and resilient UNC comeback after a devastating start. And the club’s overall consistency — including an easy 87-62 win over Wake Forest on Tuesday night — certainly bodes in its favor.

Sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo has raised his play considerably. Since my last column, McAdoo hit several key jump shots to fend off Virginia Tech at home in overtime last weekend. He followed that with a 20-point outing versus the Demon Deacons, a game in which he cut down his turnovers (committing just one) and converted an efficient 7-for-12 from the field.

As he becomes more comfortable in the offense, UNC’s shooters are enjoying greater space to pursue their own scoring opportunities. Reggie Bullock climbed his way out of a mini-slump versus hapless Wake, shooting 4-for-5 on threes to finish with 23 points. Even his “moral” miss, a long three that banked in off the glass, would have left him with a strong 60 percent showing from deep.

Fan favorite P.J. Hairston has had a rough go of it lately, missing the Virginia Tech game due to concussion and landing in the hospital early this week due to flu-like symptoms. But he once again poured in offense despite playing just 12 minutes, scoring 11 points and adding two assists.

Roy Williams continues to experiment with his rotations, starting Desmond Hubert at center but frequently limiting his minutes in the second half. Playing time for three freshmen — Brice Johnson, Joel James and J.P. Tokoto — also has been difficult to predict from game to game.

But Williams has resisted tinkering with the starting backcourt. The Marcus Paige and Dexter Strickland combination has been solid defensively but an offensive albatross all season, and UNC stats-specialist Adrian Atkinson has collected the empirical data to prove it. You can find him here on Twitter.

Whatever one’s perspective on Carolina’s progress, the next two games will deliver either an immense contradiction or affirmation. UNC travels to ACC leader Miami on Saturday (and will wear an alternate uniform that Nike recently hatched), which already defeated the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, then makes the 15-501 trek to Durham next Wednesday to face Duke.

Click here to view the UNC/Wake Forest box score.

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