CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams said earlier this season he doesnt begin thinking about the NCAA tournament until after the regular season. His players at North Carolina have also said their minds arent fixed too far into the future.
Were not focused on that, senior guard Dexter Strickland said recently when asked about his teams NCAA tournament resume. Were just focused on the next game. Were focused on getting wins, growing as a team.
Strickland and his teammates might not be focused on it, but they know. They understand there is little room for error, and that what the Tar Heels do during the final three weeks of the regular season will determine whether their season continues in the NCAA tournament or ends on the outside looking in for the second time in four years.
UNCs most important stretch of the season begins at home Saturday against Virginia, which defeated the Tar Heels in early January in the ACC opener for both teams. Back then UNC was hoping to build off its best nonconference victory, which came against UNLV on Dec. 29. Virginia, meanwhile, was attempting to prove itself after a mostly-disappointing performance in November and December.
Since, the Cavaliers have emerged as one of the ACCs surprise teams 0-3 against Colonial Athletic Association teams but winners of eight of their first 11 ACC games. Virginia has played with the kind of consistency that UNC has lacked.
The Tar Heels have gone from a losing streak to winning six of seven back to a losing streak, and now they hope they can build off what they did in defeat at Duke on Wednesday. Both UNC and Virginia are competing to put themselves in a better position to earn an at-large bid to the tournament. A victory Saturday would be significant for both teams.
Williams spoke quietly, in disappointed tones, after his teams 73-68 loss against the Blue Devils. Yet, he was hopeful that the effort and urgency he saw against Duke the kind he had been waiting to see all season would carry over.
I hope they realize how much they invested, and that it was also a battle, Williams said. It is still a loss, (and) as I said I am not into moral victories. It was there for the taking. They invested more and got more out of it.
Dividends from that emotional investment didnt come at Cameron Indoor Stadium. They could arrive Saturday if the Tar Heels maintain the kind of intensity that has eluded them for much of the season.
With seven regular-season games remaining, UNC is in a precarious position. The Tar Heels have won just one game against UNLV against a top-50 team in the RPI, and UNCs remaining opportunities for quality wins will take on added importance.
The Cavaliers, ranked 81st in the RPI, play a slow-tempo style, which represents a contrast to the Tar Heels preferred fast pace. Even after their defeat Wednesday night, the Tar Heels emerged with confidence, and at least one player articulated his belief that UNC will be NCAA tournament-worthy come March.
Without question, Strickland said. Were just struggling right now, but our potential is there (and) is good is good enough to make the tournament by far.
A victory today would go a ways toward proving Strickland right.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter