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Williams: Tar Heels finding their way

Tar Heels use semester break to intensify identity search

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com

More Information

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  • ACC standings
  • More college hoops
  • No. 23 North Carolina (8-2) at Texas (6-4)

    When/where: 9 p.m., Erwin Center, Austin, Texas

    TV: ESPN2

    Projected starting lineups

    Texas

    C Cameron Ridley 6.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg

    F Jonathan Holmes 6.5 ppg, 8 rpg

    G S. McClellan 15.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg

    G Julien Lewis 11.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg

    G Javan Felix 8.7 ppg, 5.8 apg

    North Carolina

    F Brice Johnson 9 ppg, 5 rpg

    F J. Michael McAdoo 15.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg

    G Reggie Bullock 12.2 ppg, 5 rpg

    G D. Strickland 8.9 ppg, 5 apg

    G Marcus Paige 7.1 ppg, 3.8 apg

    Player to watch

    James Michael McAdoo: The Tar Heels will face perhaps their most imposing frontcourt to date against Texas, which on the inside relies on four players who are at least 6-foot-9. That means the onus will be on McAdoo, the Tar Heels’ most consistent interior player by far, to produce – and not just offensively. McAdoo and his teammates in the frontcourt finished without an offensive rebound against East Carolina on Saturday, and that especially will have to change against the Longhorns. Defensively, the Tar Heels have struggled just about everywhere, and interior defense will take on added importance against players who present matchup problems.

    Observations

    UNC has used a small lineup with success at various points this season, but coach Roy Williams reiterated Tuesday the importance of developing confidence in freshmen post players Joel James and Brice Johnson, and sophomore Desmond Hubert. Williams wants to see better balance – and more offensive production on the interior – and that that has been a focus in recent practices. … Even amid its struggles, Texas has been stout defensively, and leads the nation in field goal percentage defense (33.2 percent). … The Longhorns rank ninth nationally with an average of 6.9 blocked shots per game. … Williams said Johnson is feeling better after suffering from an illness last weekend. … Senior guard Dexter Strickland has thrived at point guard in recent games but Marcus Paige is still the starter there. Williams said he has been pleased with Strickland’s progress as a passer and floor leader.

    Andrew Carter



CHAPEL HILL For the first time since practice started in October, North Carolina’s basketball team began a week with a singular focus.

The Tar Heels completed exams last week. For about three weeks there will be no more tests, classes or outside distractions. Campus is nearly empty.

Coach Roy Williams appreciates this time of year, and what it could mean for a young, inexperienced team – one he described Tuesday as “a team that is just still finding their way through things.”

“We’ve got a bunch of young kids that are being challenged more than they’ve ever been challenged, playing at a higher level than they’ve ever been playing,” Williams said.

“But I do think this period is a time period where if you can stay healthy and not get guys sick and missing practice, this is an extremely important time for you.”

After losing four players who became first-round selections in the NBA draft, Williams knew what he and his returning players were getting into this season. He anticipated the challenges, the stumbles and the struggles that have been commonplace during UNC’s first 10 games.

He always has believed the Tar Heels would improve as time passed – that the UNC of November would look little like the UNC of March. At least, that’s what he has hoped.

The Tar Heels’ next opportunity to improve comes Wednesday at Texas, which is even more unproven and inexperienced than the Tar Heels.

“They’re sort of like us,” Williams said of Texas, which has been without its best player, Myck Kabongo, while the NCAA investigates his eligibility. “They’re just sort of finding their way through the forest, and hopefully they can find a path to get out.”

Not that Williams and his players wouldn’t mind keeping the Longhorns there at least one game longer. After a lackluster performance Saturday, when the Tar Heels committed several mistakes in the final minutes of a 93-87 victory against East Carolina, UNC practiced for three hours Sunday.

That came after an hour of film study. Williams acknowledged many of his team’s faults – its failures with offensive rebounding, its defensive lapses – but he defended the team’s cohesion after James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock had questioned it after recent games.

“I’ve really felt like this is a team that is together,” Williams said.

That’s been true off the court, McAdoo said Tuesday. It has been true during practices, too.

During games, though, something has been lost.

“Off the court, we’re fine,” said McAdoo, a sophomore forward. “On the court, in practice, we’re great. I think just in the games we’ve really just got to, like I said, carry over all the things that we’re really emphasizing in practice and executing in practice into the games for the public’s eye to see.”

That would include offensive rebounding, which infuriated Williams on Saturday when none of his interior players rebounded one of UNC’s missed shots. And better working the ball inside on offense.

And, especially, defense. ECU, which entered Saturday with three victories against Division I opponents, scored 62 points in a victory against Georgia State and 64 in a defeat against Charlotte. The Pirates needed one half – the second half, specifically – to score 61 points against UNC.

Senior guard Dexter Strickland, who entered the season as North Carolina’s best perimeter defender, described the defense as a “six” on a scale of 10.

“We can do much better than what we’re doing now,” he said. “On-the-ball defense, off-the-ball defense. Transition baskets. I think Indiana killed us in transition.”

The Hoosiers did, indeed, during their 83-59 victory on Nov. 27.

Since then, the Tar Heels have responded with two victories but they haven’t left either one of them feeling too enthused about their performance.

This week, on a campus that’s growing quieter by the day, UNC has had an opportunity to refocus.

This time of year is beneficial for any college basketball team, Williams said, but could be especially so for his team, which is running out of time to find its identity and address its faults before the start of ACC play in January.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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