CHAPEL HILL — The losses werent any easier to take in the beginning. They never are at North Carolina, no matter when they come. But defeats in November and December could be attributed to youth, to inexperience, to learning how to move on after losing four first-round NBA draft picks.
It wasnt until the Tar Heels 91-83 defeat at N.C. State on Jan. 26 when UNC players looked inward and asked themselves what was wrong, and how to fix it. After an 0-2 start in conference play, the Tar Heels entered that game on a three-game winning streak. Early in the second half, they trailed by 28 points.
We just werent happy, getting embarrassed the way we did, Marcus Paige, UNCs freshman point guard, said this week of the defeat at N.C. State We knew something had to change, so we did do a little bit of soul-searching and tried to figure out what we could do to not let something like that happen again.
For a few games, things were good. UNC put together another three-game winning streak. And then came a 26-point loss at Miami on Feb. 9 one of the worst defeats of Roy Williams head coaching tenure in Chapel Hill.
Williams said later, on his weekly radio show, that he was due on a recruiting trip later that day. He was in a hurry. There wasnt time to waste.
Yet after that humbling defeat in South Florida he called together his assistant coaches. They gathered in a locker room in the bowels of the BankUnited Center and talked about ways to fix a season that seemed in peril.
Williams and his assistants traded ideas. They met again the next day, a Sunday, and finalized a plan to move P.J. Hairston, whod been the Tar Heels most productive player off the bench, into the starting lineup. The move left UNC small, and with a four-guard starting lineup.
It was a gamble, one Williams admitted on Friday still makes him uncomfortable at times. His coaching philosophy has been built on the conventional: big men who can post up and score inside. Smaller players who can shoot and drive. A point guard who can tie it all together, and make the offense run.
Nearly one month ago, at N.C. State, Williams was still trying to make that approach work. Now, when the Wolfpack come to the Smith Center on Saturday, they will play against a team that doesnt much look like the one that was the on the verge of suffering a blowout loss in Raleigh.
I feel like theyre a totally different team, Richard Howell, the N.C. State center, said this week. They have a new confidence level.
That much has been clear since Hairston, the 6-foot-5 sophomore guard, entered the starting lineup. In the first game after Williams changed his lineup, Hairston scored a career-high 23 points in a 73-68 loss at Duke. In the next game, he scored a career-high 29 in a 93-81 victory against Virginia.
Hairston didnt play as well earlier this week at Georgia Tech, where he made just four of his 15 field goal attempts during the Tar Heels 70-58 victory. Still, though, his presence made a difference. With him on the court, UNC has better spacing. Theres more room for Dexter Strickland and Reggie Bullock to drive.
When the Tar Heels force a turnover, or start a possession off a long rebound, theyre more apt to run. All of those things are noticeable enough. Williams has appreciated, too, of another difference in his team: It has played with more effort and energy since going small.
Thats probably the mental side of it more than anything, he said on Friday. When you realize that you cant match up with somebody thats standing beside them, trying to jump for the ball, perhaps you box out a little bit better but I think that they understand that we have some liabilities for going small.
Those liabilities havent been as pronounced as Williams might have feared. Though Hairston has been shorter than anyone hes guarded in UNCs small lineup, opponents havent been able to exploit that size advantage.
He held his own on Tuesday night at Georgia Tech against the Yellow Jackets large, formidable frontcourt. Afterward Hairston spoke of how much he embraces the challenge of defending bigger, stronger players.
They were pretty strong, but nothing I cant really handle, Hairston said of playing against a Georgia Tech frontcourt that included 6-foot-8 Robert Carter, Jr., and 6-11 Daniel Miller. It was fun. Just because I knew what I was facing 6-8, 250 and then 6-11, 260 and Im 6-6, 220?
It was just a big task for me, knowing they had that strength advantage. It was up to me to hold my ground.
Williams will ask Hairston to do that again today against C.J. Leslie, the N.C. State forward who mostly did what he wanted when the teams met last month in Raleigh. Leslie, the junior forward who entered the season as a favorite to win ACC Player of the Year honors, finished that game with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Leslies play of late is one of the reasons why the Wolfpack has successfully recovered from a three-game losing streak. N.C. State halted its skid with a one-point victory at Clemson, prevailed in overtime against Virginia Tech and then played one of its more complete games in a dismantling of Florida State earlier this week.
Williams knows his team is different than when it last played the Wolfpack. He believes the Wolfpack has changed for the better, too, in part because it learned how to play without point guard Lorenzo Brown, whos back in the starting lineup after suffering an ankle injury.
I think they went through a period of adversity thats been really good for them, Williams said. They handled it really well. Yeah, they lost a couple or something like that. But they bounced back and played better, gave Lorenzo a little break there, and he looks to me like hes back to 100 percent.
Brown dominated during the first meeting between these teams, a month ago. So much has changed in the four weeks since then, though, that UNC and N.C. State dont much resemble the teams they were.
Both teams have since changed their starting lineups. And both teams enter today with three-game winning streaks, after suffering through losses that, in hindsight, might have represented turning points.
Were both different, Mark Gottfried, the N.C. State coach, said on Friday. I think you have two teams who are both on the upswing.
Staff writer Joe Giglio contributed .
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter