CHAPEL HILL — The reminders came often during North Carolinas first practice after players returned from Christmas break: Its here. The most challenging part of the season begins now.
Roy Williams reminded his team of that before it left town. The days off, Williams said last week after his teams victory against McNeese State, came at a good time to give his players a couple of days to rest a little bit and go home and spend some time with their family, and come back.
Because its here, Williams said. Big-time basketball is here.
If the Tar Heels had forgotten that during their few days away, Williams reminded them when they returned.
Hes definitely made that point a couple of times in practice, and just talking to us, freshman point guard Marcus Paige said Friday. He always talks about how big-time players play in big-time games. And then yesterday he gave us quite a few reminders in practice that its here, and theres no time for any casual slip-ups.
The Tar Heels on Saturday will play their final non-conference game of the season, and UNC enters its game against No. 20 UNLV still seeking its first marquee victory. The Heels have lost against their three most difficult non-conference opponents against Butler in the Maui Invitational and on road against No. 1 Indiana and Texas and their best win, according to the RPI, came last week against No. 59 McNeese State.
If UNC is to bolster its NCAA tournament resume with a victory against a challenging non-conference opponent, that victory will have to come today against the 20th-ranked Rebels. Not that Williams is paying attention, yet, to things like his teams postseason resume.
Asked Friday if it was ever too early to think about that, Williams told a roomful of reporters, Its not for you guys, but it is for us.
I mean, Im trying to figure out how the hell to get the ball in-bounds, is one of the things that we were thinking about, he said. But we have one more non-conference game, and the way I look at it, were getting ready to play against a team that would be one of the two best teams in the ACC.
The Tar Heels begin conference play next weekend at Virginia and unless UNC defeats UNLV at the Smith Center, it will mark just the second time in Williams 10 seasons that the Heels enter conference play without a victory against a ranked non-conference opponent. The other time that happened was in 2007-08, when UNC didnt play a ranked opponent before the start of conference play.
That team, led by Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson, might not have needed the kind of confidence boost that comes with playing well against a quality opponent. After three double-digit losses, this UNC team could use that lift, though.
I think we all realize this is a big opportunity to get a really good non-conference win especially coming into conference play, Paige said. Obviously, UNLV is a really good team, so to get a win like this, a signature win, is something we really havent had yet.
Paige said UNCs confidence has improved in recent days, but Leslie McDonald, the junior guard, admitted Friday that he senses the publics doubt of the Tar Heels, who dropped out of the national polls following their disappointing loss last week at Texas.
I dont think were lacking respect, said McDonald, who has emerged as one of the Heels most consistent scorers off the bench. I think a lot of guys are doubting us a little bit, so we want to make sure the fans [know] that were still in this 100 percent.
McDonald a season ago watched from the bench, recovering from knee surgery, while then-No. 1 UNC suffered a 90-80 defeat against UNLV in the Las Vegas Invitational. The defeat, McDonald said on Friday, left the Heels with a bad taste, and one they hope to cleanse Saturday.
Williams, though, said this game is less about revenge and more about rebuilding confidence. He thought back to the 2003-04 season, his first at UNC, and how the Heels defeated No. 1 Connecticut.
That victory made believers of his players, he said, and the positives endured. Now comes another checkpoint.
(Saturdays) going to tell us a lot about where we go, confidence-wise, from there, Paige said. If we come out and play the way were capable of playing, I think the skys the limit for us going through ACC play.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter