UNC in control heading to Wake
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The ACC title race could end Saturday in Winston-Salem.
If No. 4 North Carolina beats No. 3 Wake Forest, the deepest and toughest conference in the country will have found its champ-to-be on Jan. 15. Order the rings. Make room in the Chapel Hill rafters. Call off the Cameron Crazies.
OK, so maybe it's not quite so clear-cut. But it's close.
What was supposedly a great race in the best conference in the country will be all but a chase for second if the Tar Heels beat the Demon Deacons.
The ACC's decision to add Miami and Virginia Tech this season created the conference's first unbalanced schedule. And this year, UNC plays both Wake and Georgia Tech just once. And after the Tar Heels clocked Georgia Tech 91-69 Wednesday night, beating the Demon Deacons would put the Heels in an enviable position just four games into conference play.
Meanwhile, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech -- the other two favorites to battle the Heels (14-1, 3-0 ACC) for the conference title -- play twice and could possibly split because B.J. Elder should be back for at least one, if not both, games.
So, it's not hard to see how important Saturday's showdown is for the Tar Heels, not to mention the Demon Deacons, if they want a piece of the ACC title.
Georgia Tech junior point guard Jarrett Jack is also savvy to the realities of the new 11-team ACC.
"I've got friends on both teams but I hope Wake pulls it out," said Jack, who held his own against Raymond Felton (11 points, seven assists), scoring 24 points and grabbing eight rebounds in a highly anticipated showdown of point guards.
Yes, the days of a true round-robin ACC champion are gone. It's now whom you play, where you play, and when. And North Carolina is hot right now, probably the hottest team in the country.
The Tar Heels are healthy and are on a wonderful roll after blitzing Maryland by 34 points last Saturday and winning by 22 Wednesday night. The Tar Heels entered the Tech game winning their previous seven games by an average of 35.4 points a game.
"It would definitely put us in the driver's seat," Tar Heels forward/center Sean May said. "We knew that we only got Georgia Tech and Wake Forest once and that they wouldn't get a second shot at us.
"I just knew this would be the biggest weekend of the season. I was worried when I saw that we were playing three top 20 teams, back-to-back-to-back."
How much did the Tar Heels circle these games? When asked, senior Melvin Scott drew an imaginary circle with his finger, around and around to prove his point.
"It could create a lot of distance," Scott said.
"I thought Georgia Tech and Wake Forest would be the two best teams in the ACC [outside of Carolina], so if we got a win over those two guys then we would have a good chance to be ACC champs," Felton said.
It hasn't hurt the Tar Heels that the three games came early in the ACC campaign. Not only is UNC on a roll, but the Heels are intact. All five starters scored in double figures Wednesday. And the 91 points actually ended a streak of three straight games of scoring at least 100 points.
|"||I've got friends on both teams but I hope Wake pulls it out ... You don't like it, but that's the way things are in the ACC now. Hopefully we'll meet them in the ACC tournament. "|
Georgia Tech point guard
"We're fresher, guys aren't injured, at least not for us," May said. "I'd rather get these games out of the way than be 9-7 and need a couple of games later in the season."
The Tar Heels probably don't need to worry about being 9-7 in the ACC, or doing any scoreboard watching in March. A share of the title can be theirs if they take care of business in January. So far, so good.
After the game, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said all he wanted to do was enjoy this win because Georgia Tech was a "big-time team." But he acknowledged the next one was huge.
Remember, Wake Forest was the pick to win the title -- not just the ACC crown but a national championship -- by ESPN.com and The Sporting News. ESPN's Dick Vitale and Sports Illustrated went with North Carolina. And while the national championship won't be decided Saturday, the ACC title could be, with the Demon Deacons (14-1, 3-0) on a run of their own after smoking Virginia and Clemson on the road, and Maryland at home, to open conference play.
But Wake Forest's crew is a bit more road tested with wins at Temple and New Mexico, as well as its lone loss at No. 1 Illinois. North Carolina won three games in Maui, and had a tough environment against an inferior Indiana team in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Its only loss was to Santa Clara in Oakland at the Pete Newell Challenge in the season opener when Felton didn't play due to an NCAA suspension.
The Tar Heels' one ACC road game so far this season? A 34-point blowout at likely last-place Virginia Tech on Dec. 19.
There is also the matter of UNC playing a certain rival just down Tobacco Road twice. The Heels also still must go on the road to struggling Florida State, Virginia, N.C. State, Maryland and Clemson. And yes, we've seen the stats that say the junior class of Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants has won only four ACC road games in two seasons.
"Our mark has been that we can win at home, but we had only won three ACC road games in my career before this season," May said. "This will be the biggest test we'll have."
"I'm very excited to see what we're like on the road because it will show what we're made of," said Scott. "It's a lot easier to play here. But the maturity level of this team is great. We're so much more mature."
Despite its offensive onslaught, Carolina is showing its maturity on the defensive end. Especially considering the Tar Heels had their sieve moments a year ago. North Carolina forced Maryland into 2-of-22 shooting on 3s, while Georgia Tech missed its first 14 from behind the arc and finished 3 of 17.
"They do a great job of denying the wings and not letting you get into an offensive rhythm," Jack said. "That's why they disrupted our offense. It's tough to stay poised with their game plan. You have to limit their runs. We knew they would play with energy, but it's tough to beat them."
Felton said the Tar Heels simply have to play with poise at Wake Forest. They know that Joel Coliseum will be rocking for the Demon Deacons. But so far this year's version of the Heels isn't showing any signs it will wilt. They might not win, but don't expect 'em to fold.
"Last year we had some problems with everyone being selfish at one point," May said. "But everyone is about winning now. Rashad isn't just trying to get his and Raymond is sacrificing himself for the betterment of the team and Jawad [Williams] is doing everything for the team. We handled our business against Georgia Tech, and now we're looking forward to a great Wake team."
And beating Wake may reduce the great ACC race to chasing second place.
"You don't like it, but that's the way things are in the ACC now," Jack said. "Hopefully we'll meet them in the ACC tournament."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.