CHAPEL HILL — For the first time since practice started in October, North Carolinas basketball team began a week with a singular focus.
The Tar Heels completed exams last week. For about three weeks there will be no more tests, classes or outside distractions. Campus is nearly empty.
Coach Roy Williams appreciates this time of year, and what it could mean for a young, inexperienced team one he described Tuesday as a team that is just still finding their way through things.
Weve got a bunch of young kids that are being challenged more than theyve ever been challenged, playing at a higher level than theyve ever been playing, Williams said.
But I do think this period is a time period where if you can stay healthy and not get guys sick and missing practice, this is an extremely important time for you.
After losing four players who became first-round selections in the NBA draft, Williams knew what he and his returning players were getting into this season. He anticipated the challenges, the stumbles and the struggles that have been commonplace during UNCs first 10 games.
He always has believed the Tar Heels would improve as time passed that the UNC of November would look little like the UNC of March. At least, thats what he has hoped.
The Tar Heels next opportunity to improve comes Wednesday at Texas, which is even more unproven and inexperienced than the Tar Heels.
Theyre sort of like us, Williams said of Texas, which has been without its best player, Myck Kabongo, while the NCAA investigates his eligibility. Theyre just sort of finding their way through the forest, and hopefully they can find a path to get out.
Not that Williams and his players wouldnt mind keeping the Longhorns there at least one game longer. After a lackluster performance Saturday, when the Tar Heels committed several mistakes in the final minutes of a 93-87 victory against East Carolina, UNC practiced for three hours Sunday.
That came after an hour of film study. Williams acknowledged many of his teams faults its failures with offensive rebounding, its defensive lapses but he defended the teams cohesion after James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock had questioned it after recent games.
Ive really felt like this is a team that is together, Williams said.
Thats been true off the court, McAdoo said Tuesday. It has been true during practices, too.
During games, though, something has been lost.
Off the court, were fine, said McAdoo, a sophomore forward. On the court, in practice, were great. I think just in the games weve really just got to, like I said, carry over all the things that were really emphasizing in practice and executing in practice into the games for the publics eye to see.
That would include offensive rebounding, which infuriated Williams on Saturday when none of his interior players rebounded one of UNCs missed shots. And better working the ball inside on offense.
And, especially, defense. ECU, which entered Saturday with three victories against Division I opponents, scored 62 points in a victory against Georgia State and 64 in a defeat against Charlotte. The Pirates needed one half the second half, specifically to score 61 points against UNC.
Senior guard Dexter Strickland, who entered the season as North Carolinas best perimeter defender, described the defense as a six on a scale of 10.
We can do much better than what were doing now, he said. On-the-ball defense, off-the-ball defense. Transition baskets. I think Indiana killed us in transition.
The Hoosiers did, indeed, during their 83-59 victory on Nov. 27. Since then, the Tar Heels have responded with two victories but they havent left either one of them feeling too enthused about their performance.
This week, on a campus thats growing quieter by the day, UNC has had an opportunity to refocus. This time of year is beneficial for any college basketball team, Williams said, but could be especially so for his team, which is running out of time to find its identity and address its faults before the start of ACC play in January.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter