North Carolina didn't dispel the doubts that have surrounded the team since its stunning loss to Boston College last Sunday, but the Tar Heels did bounce back from their first defeat and blew by Charleston 108-70 in Chapel Hill on Wednesday night.
The first half actually featured more of the same confused and effectively non-existent defense that was torched by BC, as the Cougars shot 47 percent in the first half and hit 44 percent from the three-point stripe. The fact that the Heels led 53-41 at the break didn't mollify the growing concern that the team was sliding backward after a brilliant start to the season.
Momentum changed immediately in the second half, however, when Roy Williams largely scrapped the team's trapping defense and instead played a more conventional man-to-man. The result was fewer open looks for the Cougars, and a rout ensued that sent the crowd home in a much more settled state.
Tyler Hansbrough connected on 10-of-13 shots for 24 points, and Ty Lawson responded from a poor outing against BC to register 15 points and eight assists. Deon Thompson, Danny Green and Wayne Ellington also played solidly, an encouraging sign for a team that needs balance in order to support its two stars.
The one personnel issue that has surfaced pertains to senior wing Marcus Ginyard. I wrote recently that Ginyard's return from a foot injury would alter the team's rotation and reduce the minutes of several players, but against Charleston it was Ginyard who failed to leave the bench.
Williams was candid about his presumed defensive stopper's absence after the game, saying that "(I) did not feel like playing him tonight. I think it is his foot and game shape, a bit of everything. We have not seen the offensive rebounds, steals, and the types of plays Marcus makes a living off."
Mostly, though, the conversations throughout the Smith Center and within the press room were about UNC's next opponent: Wake Forest. The Heels and Demon Deacons will square off on Sunday night in a rumble between top-five teams, and Carolina's last national title team dropped a game to Chris Paul-led Wake in 2005.
Carolina has the opportunity to restore its standing as the team to beat both within the ACC and nationally. The Deacons are fast, tall and aggressive, and they likely will attempt to match the Heels athlete for athlete.
But if the Tar Heels lose — and the Vegas point spread probably will be very close — they'll be 0-2 in the ACC and suddenly facing a difficult struggle to win the conference and claim a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament.
Note that Charleston was the team's final non-conference foe until the NCAAs, so until mid-March all of Carolina's opponents will possess a great deal of familiarity with the Heels. (Also please note here that I resisted making a crack about "Cougars" and "strange.")
To see Wednesday night's box score, click here.