Bullock needs to rediscover his shooting touch

North Carolina’s recent play effectively has locked up a bid to the NCAA Tournament and vaulted the Tar Heels into contention for the ACC regular season title.

Fans eyeballed the most recent stretch of four games — including road tests at Boston College, Clemson and Duke, as well as a home game against Florida State — with the hope that UNC somehow could scratch out a 2-2 mark heading into the latter stages of the conference schedule.

As it turns out, UNC finished 3-1 and nearly went undefeated, save for its second half collapse against the Blue Devils. Assessing the big picture, though, should generate smiles throughout the fanbase.

Carolina is ranked in the national top 20 and will play four of its final six regular season games at home. The road tests will occur at struggling N.C. State and at Florida State, which likely will be without its best player, Chris Singleton, who fractured his foot this past weekend.

During the upcoming stretch, UNC will have an opportunity to enhance its record and tournament seeding position, and the Heels should be able to finish 12-4 or 13-3 — with an outside chance to win out and finish 14-2 — the rest of the way. Duke will visit Chapel Hill in the final regular season contest, one which will be played on a Saturday night at 8 and undoubtedly will feature a raucous (and well-lubricated) crowd. The Devils have only one conference loss, but the Heels at worst would win a share of the conference crown if they finish 6-0.

The key to the team’s recent success can be explained by several factors:

First, Kendall Marshall’s move into the starting lineup has improved the club markedly. The argument could be made that, despite the absence of point guard depth, Larry Drew’s sudden departure opened up more playing time for Marshall and thus has bolstered the offense.

Meanwhile, fellow freshman Harrison Barnes has averaged more than 19 points over the past five games, showcasing the scoring ability expected of him out of high school. He has emerged as the team’s go-to shooter, and on several occasions this season he has delivered.

Team defense continues to improve as well. UNC presently ranks No. 4 nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s empirical rankings, significantly better than even the championship team from two seasons ago. Of course, Carolina’s offense ranks only No. 41 — hardly at the championship level.

That brings us to the team’s ongoing concern: shooting. Aside from Barnes, UNC’s wings have gone cold in recent outings. Dexter Strickland (when not playing point guard), Leslie McDonald and Reggie Bullock all have missed wide open looks, and teams are punishing Carolina for its lack of shooting prowess by doubling very hard on the inside players and increasing ball pressure (via traps and cheating) on Marshall.

Further, against both Duke and Clemson, Carolina failed to assert itself on the defensive glass, enabling the Blue Devils and Tigers to get far too many second shots.

The next game on the schedule likely won’t tell us much. Wake Forest visits Chapel Hill on Tuesday, the Demon Deacons frankly being a poor team and looming as the easiest opponent on the conference slate. Boston College, which lost to UNC in a rout earlier this season, plays at Carolina on Saturday.