No. 3 UNC hits the road for 1st time in a month

North Carolina has spent the past month at home, racking up

lopsided wins and trying to fix some problems that lurked early in

the season.

Now the third-ranked Tar Heels will find out how much they

accomplished as they return to the road.

The Tar Heels (15-2, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) won all nine

games during that home stand, showing improvement on defense and

rebounding after those areas lagged in early losses to UNLV and

Kentucky.

They travel to Florida State on Saturday for their first game

away from the Smith Center since losing to the Wildcats at Rupp

Arena by a point on Dec. 3, a span of 42 days.

The Tar Heels have rarely been pushed since, even though coach

Roy Williams was irked at times by the team’s wandering focus in

those easy wins.

”I think we definitely got better,” Williams said Friday. ”We

had better rebound moments than we did early, had more balance,

different guys scoring and not just depending on one or two guys.

So I think there were many, many ways that we did get better.”

Now, as the Tar Heels prepare to play four of six on the road,

Williams wants to see a team that has ”a better attention span and

maybe a higher level of attention to what we need to do.”

”Everyone had to find their identity,” sophomore Harrison

Barnes said. ”I think guys are really starting to step up.”

Among that group is junior Dexter Strickland, who had 14 points

and led the defensive effort that shut down Miami’s Malcolm Grant

and Durand Scott in Tuesday’s win.

But Williams said Strickland and freshman reserve Desmond Hubert

each suffered sprained ankles during workouts Wednesday and missed

Thursday’s practice, which could cut into the Tar Heels’ depth as

they go for a sixth straight win against the Seminoles (10-6, 1-1)

in Tallahassee.

The biggest problems early in the season were bouts of

inconsistent defense and a lack of aggression on the boards.

After flying west for the Las Vegas Invitational, the Tar Heels

were outrebounded against both South Carolina and UNLV – a surprise

considering their potential NBA talent on the front line.

And UNC struggled to contain dribble penetration or defend the

perimeter in the 90-80 loss to the Runnin’ Rebels.

Against Kentucky, North Carolina led by nine in the first half

and by five at the break before Kentucky shot 56 percent in the

second half.

North Carolina shot just 35 percent in that half and was

outrebounded in a game that ended when freshman Anthony Davis

blocked John Henson’s jumper on the final play.

But during the nine-game home stand, North Carolina’s biggest

opponent was often boredom.

The Tar Heels won eight of the nine by at least 15 points,

including a 49-point win against Evansville in the first game and a

50-point win against Nicholls State – during which the Tar Heels

showed just enough spark in the second half to talk Williams out of

an early morning practice the next day.

They followed that with probably their most focused performance

of the month, leading by as many as 24 points in an easy win

against Texas.

The only close call was a six-point win against Long Beach

State, though they led by double figures in the second half of that

one, too.

North Carolina was never threatened in the past two ACC games,

beating Boston College by 23 and Miami by 17.

The most noticeable improvement has come on rebounding, where

North Carolina has outrebounded its past seven opponents by at

least seven per game.

Still, despite the long and comfortable stay at home, Williams

thinks his players have enough experiences in tough environments to

draw on from earlier this season.

”I mean, we played on an aircraft carrier, we played at

Kentucky, we played at Vegas and a wild crowd,” Williams said.

”It’s not like this is the first time.”