UNC, Virginia represent contrast in styles

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 6, 2013 

— During one moment in North Carolina’s practice on Thursday, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams gave a simple order to P.J. Hairston, the sophomore guard.

“Run,” Williams said he screamed at Hairston, who then sprinted down the court and received a pass that he converted into a lay-up.

“I said, ‘I can’t do that in a game,’” Williams said on Friday, recounting the moment. “You’ve got to do that on your own. And I looked at [junior guard] Reggie [Bullock], and Reggie said, ‘He wasn’t running until you yelled.’ So it’s something that they’ve got to – Reggie sold him out.”

Williams laughed at that – the notion that Bullock turned in his teammate – but Williams took a more serious tone when asked whether the Tar Heels were playing at his desired accelerated, swift pace.

“Not close,” Williams said.

The Heels today open their conference schedule at Virginia, which utilizes a philosophy and a playing style completely opposite of the one Williams has employed throughout his career. Where Williams believes in running offensively whenever possible, Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett believes in the opposite.

As a result, UNC and Virginia are on opposing ends of college basketball’s statistical spectrum. Only two teams in the country average more possessions per game than the Heels’ 76.5. And only four teams in the country average fewer possessions than the Cavaliers’ 60.8.

Williams, though, is less concerned by Virginia’s slow-it-down offensive pace than he is about the Cavaliers’ defense, which is holding opponents to 35.3 percent shooting. That ranked sixth nationally entering Saturday.

“We could all play 30-point games,” Williams said. “But what’s most impressive is they guard you. The pace that you play on offense dictates the number of points that the other team has just as well as it dictates the number of points you have. But they guard your rear end.

“They get a hand up on every shot. They pack back in the lanes and make it difficult for you to have driving lanes.”

The Tar Heels learned that the hard way last February during their most recent visit to Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena. After trailing by four at halftime, UNC prevailed in a 54-51 victory that represented the Heels’ lowest point total of the season. They also shot just 33.3 percent, their second-worst shooting percentage of the season.

Both teams have changed significantly since that game. Virginia is still learning to play without All-ACC forward Mike Scott in much the same way that UNC continues to adapt to life without four players who were selected among the top 17 picks in the NBA draft.

The preferred styles, though, have remained consistent – even if the results haven’t. More than once this season, Williams has implored his team to run faster, and to be more cognizant of fast break opportunities – the kind that are likely to be harder to come by against Virginia.

“If [teams are] not any good, you can establish the tempo you want,” Williams said. “But that doesn’t happen with Virginia. Everybody says, ‘Well we’ve got to speed them up.’ And nobody does. They’re good at what they do.”

Increasing the tempo, UNC senior guard Dexter Strickland said recently, doesn’t begin after the Tar Heels have started a possession. It begins on defense.

Creating turnovers, forcing poor shots that lead to long rebound opportunities – those are ways the Tar Heels could turn the pace in their favor today. Strickland smiled when asked how fast the Tar Heels’ tempo would need to be in order for Williams to be satisfied.

“Very fast, to his speed,” Strickland said. “He wants to run, he wants to get the ball up the floor real good – real fast. And he just wants to score. And I think we have the right guys to do that. I think we’ve just got to get better on defense.”

Given the contrast in styles between UNC and Virginia, Williams took time to make clear that he’s respectful of Bennett’s philosophy and the Cavaliers’ deliberate pace. Williams on Friday implored media members not to “come out and say I’m criticizing what the hell they do on offense.”

Indeed, Williams is more concerned, anyway, with what his own team is doing offensively – and how he can coax the Heels into playing at his desired pace, even against a slow-it-down team like the Cavaliers. When Williams said UNC wasn’t close to that pace, he added that few of the teams he has coached have been close.

“We’ve got a long way to go with establishing a faster place that I’d like to play,” Williams said. “We’ve got to rebound the ball, we’ve got to get them to take some bad shots that lead out to breaks or turnovers that lead out to breaks … We’ve got to get our two, three running. Our four, five running. But we’re working on it every day.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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