Power of Visualization Sharpens ACC Title Picture for UNC

Power of Visualization Sharpens ACC Title Picture for UNC

The Tar Heels want to avoid sharing the conference crown with Duke, and a photo of the Smith Center’s rafters has become another part of their motivation

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — As North Carolina’s pursuit of the ACC basketball crown has come into sharper focus and narrowed more and more, the power of visualization has become another part of the title-chasing picture for the Tar Heels.

Harrison Ingram said assistant coach Brad Frederick has placed a certain image in the team’s group text messages, since UNC defeated NC State last weekend. It’s a photo of the Smith Center’s crowded rafters, highlighting some open space available beside the banner that hangs in recognition of the 2018-19 Tar Heels, who were ACC co-champions during that regular season.

“He’ll send a picture of it with like the spotlight over it, saying, ‘it’s right there, just go take it,’ ” Ingram said Thursday. “It’s kind of been the motivation for us that, even if the team might not be the best team that you’re playing, or the biggest name or the biggest blockbuster game, to find the motivation ourselves and find it within to go take it. Because it’s right there for us.”

Carolina’s first outright ACC regular-season championship in seven years, since 2016-17, indeed can be claimed in Saturday night’s showdown with rival Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Seventh-ranked UNC (24-6 overall, 16-3 ACC) leads the ninth-ranked Blue Devils (24-6, 15-4) by one game atop the league standings with only their regular-season finale remaining, and has secured at least a share of the ACC title for the 33rd time.

Not that these Tar Heels, under coach Hubert Davis, have sounded content with settling for splitting the conference crown as a fallback plan.

“We didn’t really celebrate after that Notre Dame win,” Ingram said, referring to Carolina’s 84-51 blasting of Notre Dame in Tuesday night’s final home game. “It was cool to get that feeling, but our eyes went straight to that Duke game. Knowing that, yeah, we might’ve gotten a share. But we definitely don’t want to share it, and we definitely do not want to share it with Duke.”

UNC and Duke will collide in their final regular-season game with some form of first place in the ACC hanging in the balance for the 29th time in 71 seasons.

Across the last 20 years, the Tar Heels have squared off against the Blue Devils on eight occasions in regular-season finales when they needed a victory to finish first in the ACC, whether in an outright or shared capacity. And remarkably, UNC has won all eight of those previous high-stakes matchups — in March 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2016 and 2019 — a perfect run amid the pressure cooker of rivalry that only enhances former coach Roy Williams’ rich legacy.

“When it’s a high-stakes game with Duke and UNC, it’s always going to be electric,” Carolina big man Armando Bacot said Thursday. “And it adds even more to the story.”

Three weeks ago, after UNC stumbled at Syracuse and slipped into a tie with Duke in the ACC loss column, Hubert Davis made it a point of conversation among the Tar Heels to reaffirm his belief in them, and also re-establish the accomplishments within reach for this group. “Win the ACC regular-season championship,” guard RJ Davis said, echoing the message then from Davis the head coach. “Go out there in the ACC Tournament, win that. Go back to the Final Four.”

And after Carolina dominated Notre Dame on Tuesday night to lock up at least a share of the conference crown, Hubert Davis acknowledged again that the team had been discussing the scope of the regular-season title implications in play.

“We talked about it,” he said. “We talked about it before the game, we talked about it after the game. And we talked about the opportunity to play Duke on Saturday, and have a chance to win it outright.

“They were looking up in the rafters the last couple of weeks and they were saying that there’s a little bit of room. There’s some room right there next to that 2019 banner, and they were talking about it. This is really important to them, and they wanted this group to have something that was sustainable. They were partially able to do it (Tuesday night). But we’re excited about preparing and playing against a Duke team that’s, I think, playing their best basketball thus far right now.”

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