No coach ever thinks his basketball team is "ready" for ACC play, North Carolina's Roy Williams said.
But in the case of the Tar Heels, they appear to be in a lot better shape than they were a year ago at this time.
On Jan. 5 of last year, UNC had a similar record - 11-4, compared with 10-4 now - but seemed to be headed in a reverse direction.
Last season at this point, senior Marcus Ginyard was already sidelined, and at least three other teammates were shuffling on and off the injury report. Now, freshman Reggie Bullock is the only player to have missed a game, and sophomore John Henson continues to play through a thumb injury.
Back then, the Tar Heels were coming off an overtime upset loss at College of Charleston, a confidence-shaker from which they never really rebounded. Going into Saturday's ACC opener on the road against Virginia (9-5, 1-0 ACC), UNC has won three straight by 23 points or more.
"We are getting better; the work ethic has been there, the desire has been there, the efficiency of our work has gotten better," Williams said Monday. "So as long as you've got those things, you've got a tremendous opportunity to improve throughout the course of the year."
Sophomore guard Dexter Strickland said a big difference has been the boost in collective confidence, which stems from everyone knowing their roles. Junior forward Tyler Zeller has become the go-to guy in the post, Henson has become a force on the boards and one of the league's top shot-blockers, reserve Leslie McDonald has become the team's best outside shooter ... and on and on it goes.
Plenty of potential improvements remain, however, if UNC wants to return to the NCAA tournament after failing to qualify last year. Although the Tar Heels were able to finish out and beat then-No. 10 Kentucky on Dec. 4, Williams wonders if the memory of then-No. 22 Texas' winning shot still lingers from the Tar Heels' Dec. 18 loss.
He still wants the defense to improve, and the frontcourt is still vulnerable, considering the team boasts only three players 6 feet 9 or taller. And although outside shooting has improved, will it be consistent in ACC play?
"I don't like to compare anything to last year; it wasn't a very good year," Williams said Sunday. "But I do think that the kids are coming along; they enjoy each other. ... Are we ready to play an ACC schedule at the ACC level? We'll find out real quick."
Smith, Singler get work
Seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler played 40 minutes apiece in Duke's 74-63 win over Miami on Sunday night, and it will probably happen again.
"They want to," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "There's not a player who doesn't want to play. You know what I mean? There's a lot of timeouts, and I pretty much know what to do with guys in practice."
The amount of minutes Krzyzewski gives his top players has always been a popular topic for Duke fans and outside observers of the program. Five and six years ago, they wondered whether J.J. Redick's shooting numbers dropped in the NCAA tournament because he was tired.
Last season, the amount of minutes Singler, Smith and Jon Scheyer played was a constant topic of discussion, as each of them averaged more than 35 minutes per game en route to an NCAA title.
"Guys don't get worn out with just games," Krzyzewski said. "They get worn out by playing the games you play sometimes between games. And you've just got to be careful with what they're doing. [Johnny] Dawkins and [Tommy] Amaker and all those guys, they played a lot of minutes."
N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe didn't anticipate playing forward Tracy Smith 25 minutes Saturday in his first game back after knee surgery.
"But he asked to stay in, said it felt good, so we did that," Lowe said. " ... The game was great; now we just have to see how he feels now."
Wake Forest freshman point guard Tony Chennault, who broke a bone in his left foot during the Deacons' opener, should be cleared for full basketball activity in about 10 days, coach Jeff Bzdelik said Monday. If the foot responds well, he could play in as many as a dozen ACC games - although the decision will be made after the player and coach sit down with his parents.
In other injury news around the league, Duke point guard Kyrie Irving was placed in a new cast Sunday to protect his right big toe, and he's still out indefinitely. ... Virginia is in a "holding pattern," coach Tony Bennett said, with forward Mike Scott, who had surgery on his left ankle and returned only to have the ankle flare up again. He may require a second surgery. ... At Florida State, 6-11 junior Xavier Gibson isn't expected to need surgery on the broken left hand or partially torn meniscus suffered during the team's recent tournament in Hawaii, but he could be out six to eight weeks, coach Leonard Hamilton said.
Staff writer Ken Tysiac also contributed to this report.