Miami at North Carolina 7 p.m. ESPN

Coach Williams, Tar Heels working to turn around basketball season

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 10, 2013 

— At the conclusion of the most miserable season of Roy Williams’ head coaching tenure at North Carolina, Deon Thompson spoke at the Tar Heels’ annual team banquet and said something that Williams still remembers to this day.

“We had had a sorry year,” Williams said on Wednesday of the 2009-10 season, when UNC finished Thompson’s senior season with a 20-17 record and a trip to the NIT. “And he said the greatest thing about coach Williams is every day he came to practice and tried to make us feel like we could get this thing turned around. And I’m going to do that (now).”

After a 61-52 defeat on Sunday at Virginia, which provided the Tar Heels with their fourth loss, Williams earlier this week promised he wouldn’t panic. He reiterated that on Wednesday, before the Tar Heels practiced for the final time before their game Thursday night at the Smith Center against Miami.

UNC is seeking to avoid an 0-2 start in ACC play and hoping to avoid a loss that would further erode the confidence of a team that hasn’t yet built much of it. The Tar Heels most recently lost their first two conference games during the 2008-09 season, but they went on to win a national championship.

Nobody, though, would mistake this UNC team, reliant on the unproven and inexperienced, with that one – which was led by the likes of Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson. Williams acknowledged on Wednesday that he has had to take a softer approach with this team, given its fragility.

“I was very discouraged after Virginia,” Williams said. “But you can put any description you want on there after we came back from Florida State last year. And that was a much different practice than what my practice was yesterday, because there was no sense in that one.”

Williams was referring to the Tar Heels’ 33-point loss against the Seminoles in Tallahassee a season ago – a loss that proved to be a positive turning point because of how UNC responded. What the Tar Heels experienced at Virginia on Sunday wasn’t all that similar to the embarrassment of the debacle at Florida State.

Yet the two losses have at least one thing in common: after both, a veteran player called a players-only meeting. Last year it was Tyler Zeller, the senior forward who eventually earned ACC Player of the Year honors. And earlier this week, it was Reggie Bullock, the junior guard who has become more outspoken amid adversity this season.

“I called a meeting with the players and we were just talking,” Bullock said on Tuesday. “I was just basically saying, coach can tell us all these things he wants, but it’s up to us to go out there and do it. … And I was just telling them, something’s got to change, and we have to change now.”

Bullock at times this season has questioned the Tar Heels’ cohesion. So, too, has James Michael McAdoo, the sophomore forward.

Yet Bullock on Wednesday described the team as a “brotherhood” while he challenged the Tar Heels to take what they normally do in practice and carry it onto the court during games.

“Everybody likes each other,” Bullock said. “But we as a team, we just have to take those things that we do in practice to the court. Me personally, I don’t think it’s no selfishness between nobody. I just think we have to tune in and buy in more when it comes and take those things that we do in practice into the games.”

Bullock’s message isn’t new. Williams and his players have spoken often during the past two months about the need to play during games the way they play during practices.

Williams earlier this week gathered his assistant coaches and asked them to identify the Tar Heels’ primary problem. They all provided different answers. He asked his players the same question, and again received mostly different answers.

That made sense, Williams said, given that he doesn’t think there’s just one main problem with UNC, either. He listed improvements he’d like to see.

“I’d like to have more inside scoring and I’d like to get the free-throw line more,” he said. “I’d like our big guys to turn it over less. And I’d like us to be more consistent shooting the ball from the outside. I’d like to handle dribble penetration better.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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