Maryland at North Carolina Noon, ESPN

Tar Heels look to keep momentum rolling against Maryland

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 19, 2013 

— North Carolina coach Roy Williams said recently that he doesn’t start thinking about the NCAA tournament until after the regular season, and Marcus Paige, freshman point guard, said on Friday it’s too early to start worrying about the postseason.

Even so, Paige conceded that the Tar Heels can’t afford to dig a deeper hole than the one they’re already in. After an important 77-72 victory at Florida State last weekend, UNC seeks to even its conference record against Maryland Saturday, which will enter the Smith Center days removed from its dramatic win against N.C. State.

“It’s important,” Paige said of the stretch of games that begins Saturday. “These next couple of games for us are huge. You can’t dig a deep hole. It’ll be a lot more difficult to be successful if we have to try to climb out of being three or four games under .500 in the league.

“So we understand – every game’s important, but these next couple are especially important.”

Though it’s only mid-January, what transpires inside the Smith Center could have March implications. Both the Tar Heels and Terrapins are lean on quality victories.

Joe Lunardi, who specializes in projecting the NCAA tournament field for ESPN.com, listed Maryland as one of the last teams out in his most recent projection, which was posted before the Terrapins’ victory against the Wolfpack. UNC, meanwhile, is a No. 11 seed in Lunardi’s projection.

A season ago, the Tar Heels seemed destined to be a No. 1 seed in the tournament, and they were when March came. Now, though, their postseason fate is murky. A victory Saturday would bring clarity. It might also allow the Tar Heels to rebuild the momentum they lost amid defeats against Virginia and Miami.

UNC most recently found itself in this position following its victory against UNLV on Dec. 29. Like the win at Florida State, the victory against UNLV was an important, confidence-building one for the Tar Heels, who hoped to carry some momentum into the start of ACC play.

They couldn’t, and didn’t. UNC followed the victory against UNLV with a pair of disappointing performances in losses against Virginia and Miami, and Williams reminded his players of the recent past during practice this week.

“I told them about it,” Williams said. “I said, you know, we followed up UNLV and didn’t play very well. Let’s follow up this one and play better. But that’s all I’ve said about it. I mean, the college game is so crazy … you never know how kids are going to react.”

As Williams described it on Friday, the Tar Heels’ focus during the past week wasn’t necessarily on Maryland, but instead on internal issues – like maintaining a sense of urgency.

During a film session early in the week, Williams showed his players examples of playing with urgency, which is a word he’s repeated often in recent weeks.

“I think they see it, when we put it on tape,” Williams said. “And now they understand it. But now you’ve got to transfer it out on the court. I mean, we had a great sense of urgency for three days before we go to Virginia – in practice. You’ve heard me talk about that, we’ve got to take it from the practice court to game day.

“But I think they’re understanding it more and more each and every day and seeing it more.”

The Tar Heels can ill afford the kind of lapses that doomed them in losses against Virginia and Miami. In both of those games, the urgency the Tar Heels played with at Florida State was absent.

Now, for the second time this month, UNC hopes to sustain the momentum it built during a solid performance. A victory would not only even the Tar Heels’ conference record, it would play an important role in the months ahead.

“We’ve got to string together a couple of good wins before we can start thinking about that stuff,” Paige said of the postseason. “Because if we don’t put together some really good wins, then that really doesn’t even matter.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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