No. 4 Tar Heels ready to prove themselves in ACCs

North Carolina was a preseason No. 1 stocked with experience and

potential NBA talent that cruised through the regular season

showing only flashes of the dominant form everyone had

expected.

The fourth-ranked Tar Heels have gotten everyone’s attention

again.

North Carolina clinched the Atlantic Coast Conference

regular-season championship by overwhelming Duke in its famously

hostile arena. The question now is whether that weekend performance

was just one game or the start of something more for the Tar Heels

heading into this week’s ACC tournament in Atlanta.

”In the beginning of the year, we kind of just expected it to

happen,” senior 7-footer Tyler Zeller said Monday. ”We expected,

not necessarily to be where we were last year, but we knew how good

we could be and we weren’t making the necessary steps to completely

get there.”

North Carolina (27-4, 14-2 ACC) sure didn’t look like a title

favorite when it lost by 33 at Florida State in January. Nor when

the Tar Heels blew a 10-point lead in the final 2 1/2 minutes to

lose at home to the Blue Devils on a last-second 3-pointer.

But they haven’t lost since. Six of their seven wins have come

by at least nine points, with a 54-51 win at then-ranked Virginia

on Feb. 25 as the only close call.

In Saturday’s 88-70 win at Duke, the Tar Heels – playing with an

anger that had burned since the first meeting – jumped ahead 22-5,

led 48-24 at halftime and pushed the margin to 26 points early in

the second half in a situation rarely seen at Cameron Indoor

Stadium.

The trick for coach Roy Williams is to get a team with potential

NBA first-round draft picks in Zeller, Harrison Barnes and John

Henson to play with that same edge every game, regardless of the

opponent.

”There were a lot of things that had both teams possibly

playing at a really high level,” Williams said of the Duke win.

”It’s hard to simulate all those things because you can’t make up

stuff. But the big-time teams give that kind of effort mentally and

physically and more consistently than the other teams.

”But again, I can’t complain about too many things. We can

always nitpick. … My team’s had a pretty doggone good year.”

Still, there’s no denying that difference from a demeanor that

ranged somewhere between boredom and indifference during a series

of early lopsided wins.

Before UNC’s win at Cameron, the toughness from a late-season

run to last year’s ACC regular-season title and an NCAA regional

final only resurfaced in big games like the one-point loss at

Kentucky in December or during much of the second half of the 85-84

loss to Duke on Feb. 8.

At times, it was almost as though the Tar Heels wanted to just

fast forward through the regular season to March. And here they

are, positioned to claim a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with a

good showing in Atlanta.

Williams said his team didn’t have a good practice Monday

morning to start the week, though he admitted it was ”human

nature” after the emotional win in Durham.

”We were lacking energy,” sophomore point guard Kendall

Marshall said. ”On one hand you can say it was expected, but at

the same time, we’re striving for bigger goals. That’s not the

first step we want to get out to going into these next three

games.”

The players certainly got a lesson in the importance of

refocusing after a big win at this time last year. They followed a

win against Duke that secured the regular-season crown with a flat

performance in the ACC tournament. They had to rally from 19 down

in the second half to beat Miami in the quarterfinals, then from 14

down to beat Clemson in overtime in the semifinals.

By the time they faced the Blue Devils in the championship game,

the Tar Heels – Marshall, in particular – had nothing left and lost

by 17.

And even that pales in comparison to the Florida State debacle.

The number ”33” from that loss is still written on a board in the

UNC locker room, a humbling reminder of the worst-case scenario if

the Tar Heels don’t play to their potential.

”I think you have to be able to pick up your focus, your

concentration, your effort, just your play in general,” Zeller

said. ”You lose, you’re done. And for me, that’s the end of my

college career.”