CHAPEL HILL — The first words came easily to North Carolina coach Roy Williams who, when asked recently what he hoped to learn about his team during the next week, said matter-of-factly, I hope to learn were good.
Williams was talking about another long trip west, the kind the Tar Heels embarked on early in their past two national championship seasons. He continued on with his answer, and spent about a minute talking about how he wanted to see more mental toughness, better ball movement, more players taking charges.
Finally, he described what he wanted to learn like this: Id say everything. Standing in the hallway outside of the UNC locker room following his teams 80-56 victory against Florida Atlantic on Sunday, Williams repeated himself.
Everything, he said. I want to learn everything.
These kinds of trips have taught Williams plenty in the past. In 2004 and 2008, the Tar Heels traveled west, first for a non-conference game in California, and then to the Maui Invitational in Hawaii, and returned after having solidified themselves as national championship contenders.
UNC began a similar journey Wednesday. The Tar Heels will play at Long Beach State late Friday night, and then will travel to the Maui Invitational, where they begin play Monday against Mississippi State.
By the time UNC returns next Thursday, the Heels will have played four games in six days and traveled more than 5,000 miles along the way. In 2004 and 08, Williams took veteran, experienced teams west. This trip, though, is different already given UNCs relative inexperience and its reliance on freshmen.
Were going to learn a lot, said James Michael McAdoo, the UNC sophomore forward. Im not really sure what its going to be. Hopefully its all positive stuff. Im a realist, [and] I know its not going to be all positive but hopefully we can just overcome the challenges that are before us.
Because all these games that are coming up are going to be at whole other level than these past two games.
McAdoo and his teammates began the season with two decisive, albeit sloppy, victories against Gardner-Webb and Florida Atlantic. Beyond those performances, Williams has evaluated his team only during practice and two exhibition games one of them a private, non-scored scrimmage against Georgetown.
Williams has rarely begun any of his nine other seasons at UNC with less of a concrete idea about the Tar Heels potential.
The Heels first two games have provided some answers. McAdoo has been an assertive, aggressive scorer. Marcus Paige, the freshman point guard, has shown flashes of his potential. The other freshmen Joel James, Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto have done enough to warrant optimism.
But at the start of this extended trip, the kind of team that UNC is and what it might become remains a mystery. Paige, who has never been to Hawaii, described his first college road trip as a good test for him and his teammates.
Long Beach State, were definitely not overlooking that game before we go to Maui, because they are always a tough team, he said. And the Maui trip, I think thats going to say a lot about our team, and how good of a season were going to have. That could be a turning point in our year.
If we play really well, it could extend for a couple of games and get us on a run.
UNC won the Maui Invitational in 2004 and 08. The 2004 title came after the Tar Heels lost their first game of the season, at Santa Clara, without starting point guard Raymond Felton.
Even that UNC team, as talented and deep as it was, experienced early-season adversity. This one likely will, too.
[Im] just trying to see how our team can grow, said Reggie Bullock, the junior guard who is still learning to adapt to a greater role. I just feel like were going to be able to grow as a team while were out there. Well see exactly how we are as a team.
When Williams explained what he wanted to learn about his team during this journey, he focused on the offense and said, Weve just got to get a lot smoother. But he also told a story about discovering an itinerary for a practice from last November.
He compared it to what the Tar Heels were working on at the start of this season.
It was the difference in night and day, Williams said. But we had five returning starters. So that makes it a heck of a lot easier, and none of them were freshmen. And so this year were sitting there and weve got one returning starter and a lot of freshmen are playing a lot of minutes.
After losing four starters, the Tar Heels began their reconstruction process in the summer amid long pick-up games, workouts and once-a-week practice sessions. It continued on when practice began last month and now, with a long journey west, comes perhaps the most important part of UNCs early season.