Busting Brackets

UNC Basketball guts out third straight road win as chaos befalls other ranked teams

Ranked teams have had a rough week, but the North Carolina Tar Heels entered PNC Arena and came out with a hard-fought road win against N.C. State Wednesday night, adding to their resume while moving to 4-0 in the ACC.

Despite often being the smallest player on the court, Elliot Cadeau has embodied the toughness that has vaulted Carolina to the top of the ACC.
Despite often being the smallest player on the court, Elliot Cadeau has embodied the toughness that has vaulted Carolina to the top of the ACC. / Lance King/GettyImages

This week has been an eventful one in the college basketball world. The top two teams in the country, Purdue and Houston, were each knocked off by unranked opponents on Tuesday night, and Wednesday wasn't any kinder to the other top teams in the polls, as Kansas, Tennessee, and Oklahoma all met the same fate.

Winning on the road is difficult, and this week's games have been a reminder of that. We should all appreciate, then, what the North Carolina Tar Heels are doing. As other teams have struggled to emerge victorious in hostile environments, UNC beat N.C. State 67-54 on Wednesday night to win its third straight conference road game.

It would be inaccurate to call any of the Tar Heels' last three wins pretty, but Hubert Davis isn't looking to win any beauty contests. The Heels have stepped up on defense in a big way, holding Pitt, Clemson, and State to under 60 points, and Wednesday, Carolina held the Wolfpack to 26.9% shooting from the floor and 9.5% from three. Carolina hasn't trailed in the second half in the last three games, and the result has been three straight double-digit wins.

UNC has displayed a toughness that was notably absent last year, and a lot of the credit goes to the new faces on the team. Harrison Ingram ripped down 19 rebounds against the Wolfpack, and when Carolina had a chance to put the game away, Elliot Cadeau put his head down and drove into the teeth of a tiring N.C. State defense again and again, creating layups, dropping dimes to cutting teammates, and drawing fouls to get to the line. Even Jae'Lyn Withers, who has frustrated UNC fans with his erratic play recently, provided a spark off the bench with three blocks.

Eight Tar Heels played 12 minutes or more, and by the end of the game, State had nothing left. Jalen Washington did a phenomenal job of defending Wolfpack big man D.J. Burns after he got off to a hot start on Armando Bacot, and Hubert Davis' decision to selectively double-team the enormous lefty disrupted State's offense and created multiple turnovers. Even the crowd lost all its verve as the Heels put the clamps on in the second half, with the loudest moment being when Harrison Ingram missed two free throws in the final minute to win free Chick-fil-A for those in attendance. By the end, it sounded like the Dean Dome as Carolina fans, yours truly included, celebrated.

After spoiling State's perfect 3-0 record in the ACC, the Tar Heels now stand alone at the top of the conference as its lone unbeaten team, with three of their four wins coming on the road. The schedule is lined up for UNC to continue its run, too, with home dates against Syracuse and Louisville next on tap.

Whether it's due to the transfer portal, conference realignment, or something else, there's no dominant team in college basketball this year. The big boys are falling left and right, which tells me that the team that cuts down the nets in early April is going to be the team that's tougher than everyone else.

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It can't be overstated how much tougher this year's team is than last year's. Hubert Davis is pushing all the right buttons, and the Tar Heels are closing out games with confidence. I don't know if Carolina is the toughest team in the country, but after three straight road wins in which they squeezed the life out of their opponents with elite team defense, they're certainly in the conversation. As the rest of the country's top teams collapse around them, that toughness may be enough.