North Carolina basketball continues to confound.
After losing to Belmont at home, beating Louisville by nine on a neutral court and following that up with a loss at UAB, the Tar Heels entered Wednesday night’s matchup with Michigan State in East Lansing as underdogs that no one could understand. And after soundly defeating the No. 1 Spartans by 14 – a game in which No. 1 never led – UNC remains a mystery.
Certainly, the Spartans didn’t do themselves any favors. They ended the first half on an 18-6 run but couldn’t capitalize to start the second. They stayed steadily behind the Tar Heels for the first five minutes or so and even tied the game again at 49-49 with 12:09 left on Keith Appling's 3-pointer. Brice Johnson stepped up for UNC and hit baskets on back-to-back possessions and gave his team a four-point cushion, and Michigan State didn’t get closer again. The Tar Heels won the game 79-65.
The Spartans struggled with injuries and illnesses: forward Matt Costello was suffering from the flu and questionable coming into the game, but he had six points and a spark off the bench. The real scare of the game came late in the first half as Appling went for a block and came down hard on his hip. He returned to score 10 points in the second half. Garry Harris was in an out with his aggravated ankle, and Adreian Payne struggled with cramps and was on and off the bench often in the second half.
But the injuries don’t explain the Spartans’ loss. The Tar Heels were the more physical, the more aggressive – and, to put it plainly – the better team on the court. They out-rebounded Michigan State (40-35), got more points off the bench (31-17) and scored from the paint, seemingly at will. Johnson finished 6-of-11 for 14 points and 290-pounder Kennedy Meeks added 15 points and seven rebounds. Neither of those players is a sure-fire future NBA pick like Payne is, but even when Payne was healthy, he was being outplayed in the paint.
The front court’s fortitude helped to ease the pressure on guard Marcus Paige. He has been North Carolina’s go-to scorer in the continued absence of P.J. Hairston, but he struggled against the stifling defense of Harris, shooting only 4-of-14 from the floor.
The outcome ended a 35-game home winning streak over unranked opponents for the Spartans. But that’s misleading. The Tar Heels aren’t unranked because they’re untalented; they’re unranked because they’re inconsistent. The Tar Heels team that played tonight is certainly in the top 10. The Tar Heels team that lost to UAB isn’t in the top 25.
For North Carolina fans, there is room for comfort and concern. If Hairston and Leslie McDonald return to the lineup, the Tar Heels could be one of the deeper teams in the country, but there is no timetable for a return. For now, it’s up to Roy Williams to figure out how to get his Heels to play like every game is against a top-5 team.