Heels are a work in progress

Staff writerNovember 9, 2009 

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UNC coach Roy Williams directs Ed Davis (32) and Deon Thompson (21) in the first half of play.

ROBERT WILLETT — ROBERT WILLETT-rwillett@newsobserver.com

The inevitable soul-searching that this North Carolina team will go through, as is only natural given the sheer volume of the post-championship exodus, was always going to last longer than one game.

What Monday’s 88-72 win over Florida International showed was that this is very clearly a work in progress, and while there’s plenty of raw material, there’s also a lot of work to be done to mold it into coherence.

The Tar Heels actually managed to turn the ball over more than their opponent, which in this kind of early season game against outmatched nonconference foes is a rare, and telling, occurrence.

“There are definitely going to be some growing pains,” North Carolina forward Deon Thompson said. “We have so many freshmen and lost so much from last year. It’s definitely going to be a process for us.”

It couldn’t have helped that in their first real action of the season, they were wearing someone else’s uniforms -- throwback outfits modeled on those worn by the 1957 title team.

Not that any reminder that this team isn’t a more recent championship team was really needed. When the Tar Heels arrived on the court, they were ignored by a gaggle of TV cameras gathered at another entrance awaiting first-year Florida International coach Isiah Thomas.

It has been a long time since an opponent at the Smith Center had the kind of juice to outshine the home team -- “I was walking off one end and all I heard was, ‘Ma-gic, Ma-gic,’ ” Thomas said of the crowd’s taunts. “You can’t beat that.” -- and perhaps that discrepancy accounted for the late-arriving crowd and all the empty seats.

Either way, the loudest pregame cheer from the student section was for coach Roy Williams, suddenly the Tar Heels’ most famous face. It was a subdued entrance for the defending national champions. As another coach once said, “I hope you would support who we are, not who we are not.”

That also happens to be the big issue facing this team. They know who they’re not. Everyone does. But even they don’t know who they are yet.

“There’s really no telling when we’ll get to that point where we’re meshing together and getting a feel for each other and the team chemistry,” swingman Marcus Ginyard said. “We’re working toward that right now.”

Williams spent a good chunk of the first half standing in front of the Carolina bench sweeping his hand toward the offensive end as Larry Drew II or Dexter Strickland carried the ball upcourt.

Faster. Faster. Faster.

Even last year’s team didn’t play fast enough for Williams’ taste at times, so that’s only to be expected. If that were all this team was struggling with, no one would notice. Instead, even the very end of the bench felt Williams’ wrath Monday.

“I even chewed the last five guys out because we had four turnovers in the last two minutes of the game,” Williams said. “I said, ‘You work your tail off in practice. If you want to get in the game don’t turn the dadgum ball over when we put you in there.’ ”

As expected: double-doubles for Thompson and Ed Davis; six assists for Drew; a 44-29 rebounding edge. The herky-jerky passing and frequent turnovers cast a pall over all that.

“Outside of basketball, we’re a great Carolina family,” Thompson said. “We’re just not on the same page right now.”

A fitting choice of words on Thompson’s part: This season is all about turning the page at North Carolina. It’s a big job, and Monday made clear it won’t happen overnight.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-8947

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