Heading into the National Invitation Tournament, North Carolina point guard Larry Drew II couldn't help but hear, read and sense the criticism: Not fast enough. Poor leader. Bad shooter. Can't get it done in the clutch.
Not that he particularly minded: "I welcome critics, all critics - I just use that as motivation," he said. "I just try to prove people wrong. I get a lot of satisfaction out of that."
He's gotten plenty of satisfaction, then, lately.
One of the main reasons UNC (19-16) has won three straight games and will play Rhode Island on Tuesday in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden is the improved play of Drew.
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In the first round, the sophomore posted solid numbers (9 points, 6 assists, 2 turnovers) against William & Mary. Then he converted a breath-catching, game-winning drive-and-layup - over the outstretched arm of the NCAA's all-time leading shot-blocker, Jarvis Varnado - in the second round at Mississippi State. On Tuesday, he scored on another key drive, and added two free throws, in the final minute of North Carolina's quarterfinal victory at UAB.
He is averaging 8.3 points, 6 assists and 3 turnovers in the NIT and looks a far cry from the player who struggled with pushing the pace, converting free throws and deciding when to shoot and when to create shots for teammates during the regular season.
Why has his game finally clicked now?
"I would hope it's because we've been practicing all year, harping on him all year, emphasizing on it all year, beating it into him all year," coach Roy Williams said. "Finally he's succumbed and listened to us better."
But Drew said the turnaround is simpler than that: "I just don't want to lose. I just don't want to go home. I just don't want to stop playing. I've done my share of my things wrong this season, and I've made my share of mistakes. And I just want to turn things around for myself, and the team."
You couldn't blame him, though, had he taken the opposite approach.
Following in the jet exhaust of speedy All-American Ty Lawson, Drew was a natural lightning rod for criticism when the season started to implode for the defending NCAA champions. There were plenty of other reasons for UNC's free fall: inconsistent post play, a slew of injuries, freshmen playing new positions they were slow to grasp.
But Drew struggled with everything from turnovers to shot selection to consistency, and he was hurt by the fact that he had no experienced backup ballhandler to count on, no Tyler Hansbrough-type forward to throw it to in the post, and no pinpoint outside shooters on the wing.
Some critics started questioning why he went to California for one summer session to work out with his father (an NBA assistant coach), rather than stay in Chapel Hill with his teammates. Fans started debating how quickly incoming freshman Kendall Marshall would beat him out of the starting job next season. Rumors persisted that Drew plans to transfer - rumors he consistently denies.
"It all comes with the territory, being the starting point guard at North Carolina," Drew said.
Indeed, teammates say they have been impressed with how Drew has matured over the last couple of weeks - taking control of the team in late-game situations and acting like more of a leader. Watching NCAA tournament games, Drew said, has only spurred him to try to improve. "Just knowing that we didn't get to where I feel we should be, it just puts a chip on my shoulder,'' he said. "I just want to go out there and just win."