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