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Lucas: No Problems

Lucas: No Problems

By Adam Lucas

GREENSBORO--On February 9, Roy Williams had problems. He'd just watched Miami blitz his Tar Heels, 87-61, in a game that might not have even been as close as the score indicated. His team had started slowly (again). His team had been outshot (again). His team had struggled to defend (again).

But what was most troubling, what must have really baffled the head coach, was that the Tar Heels didn't compete. It was, to that date, the fourth time Carolina had been placed on a national stage and matched against an opponent with reasonable expectations of being one of the better teams in the country. All four times--Butler, Indiana, NC State and Miami--the opponent had blistered the Tar Heels.

That's what caused Williams to linger after the game in the Bank United Center visiting locker room and talk with his coaching staff about how they might fix their problems. They needed to shoot better, sure. They needed to be more aggressive. But mostly, they really, really needed to compete, and it was the job of the coaching staff to figure out how to do that.

You don't realize exactly how much you enjoy that competition until it's not there. Williams will occasionally mention it, that thrill of being in big games and watching his team play its very best against someone else's very best. It's happened for so long at Carolina that if you're not careful, it can get a little boring.

You know what makes you appreciate that level of competition a lot more? Watching Miami pass the ball off the backboard and dunk it while LeBron James sits on the sideline and hoots.

The Tar Heels gathered at their Greensboro hotel on Saturday night and watched clips of that game, ostensibly to prepare for the ACC Tournament championship game but also to remember what now seems like the distant past.

P.J. Hairston said it best: "They had fun playing against us."

That's exactly right, and it's not supposed to be fun to play against the University of North Carolina. The past month has been about figuring out a way to compete against the top-tier teams without making it quite as enjoyable for those opponents.

If Sunday's 87-77 loss to Miami is any indication, mission accomplished.

The Tar Heels can't play much better than they played against the Hurricanes, who were spectacular. Carolina will rue a handful of missed layups in the first half and two three-pointers that rimmed out in the second half--a P.J. Hairston shot with 6:50 left that channeled Danny Green in the 2008 Final Four and went in before coming out, and a good look from Reggie Bullock at the 4-minute mark--but still played as close to their potential against a quality team as they have all year (in the game at Duke, the Blue Devils didn't have Ryan Kelly and probably didn't feel they played all that well).

 Miami played a very, very good game in front of a very hostile Greensboro Coliseum crowd. And they had to play that way in order to beat the Tar Heels.

And so what did Williams say after watching that performance? He put it perfectly: "I've got no problem with my team." 

Comparing the team he'd watched on film on Saturday night with the team that competed on Sunday afternoon, Leslie McDonald said, "Our whole demeanor is totally different. In the first game, we weren't as all in as we should be. Our demeanor was not as ferocious as it is right now."

That's a good word--ferocious. The Tar Heels were not ferocious against Butler. They were not ferocious in Bloomington. They were not even ferocious at Texas.

Now, though, they compete. And they're just a little bit ferocious, and they're getting contributions across the roster. Hairston and Bullock deservedly made first-team All-Tournament. But every player Williams used found a way to contribute. Summoned for exactly 37 seconds late in the second half, Jackson Simmons played good defense on Shane Larkin and thwarted a screen-and-roll, challenged a shot, helped secure a rebound, then set a screen and hit Bullock with a would-be assist. That's a full 37 seconds, and it's the kind of effort put forth by every player on the roster.

You could tell how much Williams appreciated it by his gravelly voice after Sunday's game. This was a coach who was spent, who was proud of what his players had accomplished and content that they'd done everything possible to try and win the ACC Tournament.

"I'm really proud of my team," he said. "My team gave great effort today, my team was tough today, my team was attentive today...I feel very lucky to be the coach of my team."

Carolina's head coach assembled his team at his home on Sunday evening to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show. Once his squad's 8 seed in the South was announced, the program could begin the process of getting ready for the postseason.

Williams will spend this week preparing to return to Kansas City for the first time since he left the University of Kansas in the spring of 2003. He'll have to learn about a brand new opening-game opponent, Villanova. He'll get numerous questions from the Kansas-based media, many of them repeats of the same questions that same media asked him last year in St. Louis. 

With the NCAA Tournament on the horizon, the head coach has at least 99 problems.

But his team's not one.

Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.