- Robbi Pickeral, College Basketball
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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- In a way, Miami is responsible for the team North Carolina has become.
That’s why, in a way, it’s fitting that the two teams will play for the ACC tournament title Sunday.
Feb. 9, the then-eighth-ranked Hurricanes trounced the Tar Heels so handily (by 26 points) that UNC coach Roy Williams knew something had to change. After meeting with his coaches in the BankUnited Center locker room, he opted to go to a four-guard starting lineup.
The result: An 8-2 record for the Tar Heels since the switch, and a faster, more confident, better scoring UNC team than the one Miami faced during its two-game regular-season sweep.
“The smaller lineup has helped us,’’ Williams said Saturday after his team beat Maryland in the semifinals. “We’re a better basketball team. Is it a world-beater, is it the newest thing that ever happened, the best thing that ever happened? No. ... But [going small] was the best thing for this team.
“Whether it presents any different problems for [the Hurricanes], we’ll have to wait and see what happens [Sunday].”
The Tar Heels are confident, though, pointing out how far they’ve come not just from that last game at Miami, but from their 0-2 ACC start. Who would have imagined back then that they’d be competing for the league’s tournament championship?
“We’ve had some ups and downs this year, and we went through a period where we struggled, and a lot of people kind of doubted us,’’ UNC point guard Marcus Paige said. “But the great thing about that is we stuck together as a team and we finally started getting things clicking.
“So to get a chance to play Miami [Sunday], who has beaten us pretty badly, and have a chance to cut down the nets and ... to win an ACC tournament championship -- it would just be awesome to see the season come full circle like that.”
A few things to watch in the championship game at Greensboro Coliseum:
MIAMI’S STARTING BACKCOURT
Hurricanes point guard Shane Larkin (a first-team All-ACC selection) and shooting guard Durand Scott (the ACC Defensive Player of the Year) combined for 55 points in their semifinal victory over NC State on Saturday.
UNC’s Paige and starting shooting guard Dexter Strickland -- who combined for 23 points against Maryland -- are going to have their hands full, even with the help of wing Reggie Bullock, the team’s best defender.
“We try to be the best backcourt every night, and I feed off his energy and he feeds off me,’’ Larkin said. “We play well with each other, and I know if he’s driving he’s going to have his head up and if I’m open he’s going to find me and hopefully he thinks the same of me. We challenge each other in practice; most of the time we are going against each other and we try to make each other better in practice. I’m just grateful that he’s on my team."
UNC’s ‘BIG’ MEN
Tar Heels forward James Michael McAdoo turned in his worst scoring game of the season the last time these two teams matched up, with six points on 3-for-12 shooting in 26 minutes. UNC’s leading scorer has been more aggressive of late, but he has battled foul trouble his last two games, something the 6-foot-9 sophomore will have to be wary of against Miami’s bevy of big guys.
Meanwhile, 6-foot-5 P.J. Hairston, inserted to create the smaller starting lineup after the last Miami loss, will have to play big even with his left hand still bandaged after needing eight stitches between his fingers on Friday night. Miami’s starting backcourt stands 6-11 (Kenny Kadji) and 6-10 (Julian Gamble), with a 6-10 wide body (Reggie Johnson) coming off the bench.
Both teams are NCAA tournament locks, but a victory would mark the Hurricanes' first ACC tournament title -- and make a better case to the NCAA selection committee that they should be a No. 1 seed.
“We’re a hungry team and we want more and more,’’ Larkin said. “We’re not satisfied with winning the regular season, we want the ACC and eventually we’re going to make the national championship game. We’re hungry and not going to settle for less. Hopefully we can get out there and get it done.”
The Tar Heels are looking for their 18th ACC tournament title, to strengthen their NCAA seeding and to prove they are ready to make a run as the postseason continues.
“Everyone had their doubts,’’ Hairston said. “... But once we started clicking together and playing as a team and just playing North Carolina basketball, that’s when everything came together and we started playing with different intensity and a sense of urgency.”