CHAPEL HILL — After former Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt turned down the head coaching job at St. John's at the end of the 2010 season, Roy Williams had some words for him.
"I told Paul the only reason he didn't leave a couple of years ago to go to St. John's (was) because North Carolina wasn't on his schedule at St. John's," Williams said recently.
Georgia Tech fired Hewitt at the end of last season, but it wasn't because of how his teams fared against the Tar Heels. UNC (17-3, 4-1 ACC) has lost four consecutive games against the Yellow Jackets, five of the last seven, but it will seek to end the Yellow Jackets' recent mastery in this series when the teams meet today at the Smith Center at 6 p.m.
Georgia Tech (8-12, 1-5 ACC) enters the game at the bottom of the ACC standings. The Yellow Jackets have lost four consecutive games and eight of their past nine. But they were struggling last season, too, before a surprising 78-58 victory against the Tar Heels in Atlanta.
The game today is the first meeting between the teams since the Tar Heels suffered that 20-point loss - one that UNC players have said was a turning point to the 2010-11 season. This time around, the Heels aren't seeking a turning point but instead are hoping to build off three of their best halves of the season.
Starting with the second half of their 82-68 victory against Virginia Tech on Jan. 19, the Heels have outscored their opposition by a combined 38 points in their last three halves. UNC's 74-55 victory against N.C. State on Thursday night wasn't pretty all the time, but it might have represented UNC's best overall defensive performance this season.
The Tar Heels were active on the perimeter, in passing lanes and in the paint, where the Wolfpack made just 10 of its 21 shots. UNC's defensive effort was more impressive given that it came without Dexter Strickland, the junior guard who suffered a season-ending knee injury in that victory against the Hokies.
"That's when we're at our best, and (when) we can be our most successful - (when) our defense is creating our offense," UNC point guard Kendall Marshall said of the defensive performance against N.C. State.
The challenge for UNC, though, has been to maintain that defensive intensity at all times. Given their struggles this season, the Yellow Jackets might not offer the best barometer to measure UNC's defensive effort.
The Yellow Jackets are averaging 62.4 points, which ranks 11th in the ACC, and they have been the worst 3-point shooting team in the league. UNC is an overwhelming favorite to break its recent stretch of futility against the Jackets, but what might please Williams more than anything is if his team plays with the same attitude it did Thursday.
"I said early in the year we had a chance to be good defensively, and I'll still say that," he said. "Even though at times we really haven't [been]."