Harrison Barnes, Tanner Smith

March omen? Tar Heels’ confidence rising fast

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North Carolina avoided a bout of Duke déjà vu Saturday. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

The No. 20 Heels watched their halftime lead evaporate vs. Clemson, which raised all sorts of red flags for the players. Would they miss a chance to beat another ACC foe in a brutal road environment?

Apparently not. The 64-62 win wasn’t as impressive as some of the Heels’ other recent wins, but it might be the most important yet. A loss might’ve wrecked the young team’s psyche.

“I’m not going to lie to you, I was thinking about the game on Wednesday” sophomore forward John Henson said afterward. “But we fought back this time. We kept our composure. I think that’s just a lesson we learned from the Duke game.”

Freshmen Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall combined for 38 points. Henson logged another double-double. On the road against one of the league’s top teams? That’s a solid day, and even surprised the players a bit.

“This shows we’re able to grind out wins,” Barnes told the Raleigh News & Observer.

Never discount the road win in college hoops. Home teams have myriad of advantages, and Clemson’s no different. The Tigers are tame on the road, but ferocious at Littlejohn, where they’ve lost just once this season entering Saturday. Winning there is no small thing, even for a talented team like UNC.

Four of the Heels’ six losses this season have come on the road. If Duke provided Roy Williams’ team with a small bit of confidence and a few learning moments to apply to the rest of their season, Saturday was much bigger than a two-point win. It could signal even bigger things come March.

A talented, young team with confidence in the NCAA tournament is a dangerous thing.

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: A Big 12 and a Big Ten showdown

Denzel Valentine
(AP Photo/Al Goldis)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 10 West Virginia at No. 6 Kansas, 7:00 p.m.

The last time these two teams got together, West Virginia actually knocked off Kansas in Morgantown. It was the third time in the last three seasons that WVU has beaten KU at home. So there’s some revenge at stake here. But there’s also the whole Big 12 title race, which West Virginia currently leads. If the Mountaineers win tonight, they’ll be up by two games on Kansas with the tie breaker and just seven games left to play. The Jayhawks regular season title streak could be over if that happens.

THIS ONE’S GOOD, TOO: No. 8 Michigan State at No. 18 Purdue, 7:00 p.m.

We think the Spartans are back to their early season form after wins over Maryland (at home), Northwestern, Rutgers and Michigan. If Michigan State really wants to prove something to the college basketball world, they will go into West Lafayette tonight and get a win. Denzel Valentine vs. Raphael Davis will be fun.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  1. Pitt will pay a visit to No. 12 Miami in a game the Panthers could really use a win in. Pitt hasn’t been the most consistent team in the country and without adding a few quality wins they could be looking at the bubble.
  2. Duquesne will be paying a visit to No. 19 Dayton, who moved into a tie for first place in the Atlantic 10 thanks to VCU’s loss on Saturday.
  3. Georgia is right there on the bubble, and they will have a chance to try and push themselves into a better spot when they play at No. 22 Kentucky tonight.
  4. Creighton probably has to win out to have a shot of making the NCAA tournament, and that includes tonight, when they host No. 5 Xavier.
  5. No. 7 Virginia will be hosting Virginia Tech, who picked off the Wahoos in Blacksburg earlier this year.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

  • No. 1 Villanova at DePaul, 8:30 p.m.
  • No. 25 Wichita State at Drake, 8:00 p.m.

 

PLAYER OF THE YEAR POWER RANKINGS: Buddy Hield isn’t going anywhere

Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield (24) drives to the basket as LSU guard Antonio Blakeney (2) defends in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
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It’s Tuesday, which means that it is once again time for the NBC Sports Player of the Year Power Rankings.

And you’ll be shocked to find out that Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield is still No. 1 in those rankings. By a pretty wide margin.

The rest of the top 10?

They can be found here, at the CBT FaceBook page. Follow that page for the countdown: