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.

Illinois’ injury woes continue as starting center needs knee surgery

George Niang,Abdel Nader,Mike Thorne, Jr.
AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser
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Illinois suffered another blow in what has already turned out to be a brutal season.

Mike Thorne is expected to miss the rest of the season after tearing his meniscus. He reportedly underwent surgery on Monday to repair the injury.

Thorne, a transfer from Charlotte, was starting at center for the Illini and doing a good job of it as well. He was averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 boards, although Illinois has started off the season 3-4.

The reason for that slow start has mainly been those injuries. Tracy Abrams is already out for the season after tearing his achilles, and the Illini training room looked like a M.A.S.H. unit. Kendrick Nunn just returned two games ago from surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament. LeRon Black is still getting back to speed after offseason knee surgery. Jaylon Tate is back after dislocating a finger. Jalen Coleman-Lands was slowed by a stress fracture.

John Groce entered this season on the hot seat, and dealing with all of these injuries certainly isn’t helping his cause.

NEW PODCAST: Recapping Feast Week

Kris Dunn
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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We talk about a lot of stuff of the podcast today, mainly because a lot of stuff happened since we last spoke with you all.

For starters, we need to discuss the ‘realness’ of Syracuse and Xavier. Are they both truly top 15 teams, or do they just have top 15 resumes? We also dive into Chris Mack’s epic troll-job of Dayton at the Advocare Invitational final.

Other topics we touched on: Whether or not Scott is ever going to apologize to Wayne Selden, Wichita State’s tournament hopes, Texas A&M and whether we’d take Ben Simmons, Kris Dunn or Denzel Valentine today.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes right here. It’s the quickest way to get access on your cell phone or tablet.