Roy Williams, players have difficulty explaining UNC's dramatic swings

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 5, 2013 

— North Carolina coach Roy Williams began his postgame news conference on Wednesday night by saying “I don’t know” three times, and then his players repeated the chorus. No one at UNC – coaches, players or anyone else – could explain the latest turn in what’s becoming a wild, unpredictable season.

The Tar Heels’ 79-65 victory against No. 1 Michigan State on Wednesday night came three days after UNC suffered an ugly, humbling loss at UAB. And that loss came one week after UNC defeated then-No. 3 Louisville – a victory that came another week after another stunning defeat, this one against Belmont.

Without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, a pair of guards who are sitting out amid NCAA eligibility concerns, the Tar Heels understood they faced no shortage of uncertainty and questions. They might not have known, though, that a month into the season they’d be perhaps the most confounding team in the nation.

UNC has beaten the two best teams on its schedule and has lost to two teams that now count victories against UNC among the best in school history. The Tar Heels at times have looked woefully incompetent – incapable of consistently making free throws, like they were against Belmont, or running their offense, like at UAB.

But UNC has played nearly flawlessly, too. The Tar Heels during the first half of a season-opening victory against Oakland shot with more proficiency than they had in any half in Williams’ tenure at UNC. Against Louisville, UNC successfully beat the Cardinals’ press defense. And against Michigan State, it wasn’t even close at the end.

So what to make of the Tar Heels? Are they more the team that beat Louisville on a neutral court and silenced Michigan State’s Breslin Center? Or are they more the team that lost against Belmont and UAB? Williams on Wednesday night tried to think about what his team had just taught him during its 14-point victory against the Spartans.

“Who knows,” he said. “You would have thought after the Louisville game I would have learned a lot then. And I learned that when (we went) to UAB, we played poorly. But UAB really wanted it so much more than we did. Today, Michigan State did not want it that much more than we did.

“I think ‘want to’ is something that’s been extremely important to me.”

The victories against Louisville and Michigan State have that in common, at least. In both, the Tar Heels played with an apparent energy – the kind that was missing at UAB.

The most significant common thread between the Louisville and Michigan State victories, though, might be UNC’s success inside. In both games, the Tar Heels punished their opponents on the interior.

Against Louisville, Brice Johnson, the sophomore forward, and Kennedy Meeks, the freshman center, combined for 26 points and 17 rebounds. Against Michigan State, they combined for 29 points and 13 rebounds. Both players continue to come off the bench, but they’re as important as any starter.

“This is the way we need to play every game,” Johnson said Wednesday night. “We just need to do it consistently and just keep coming out every night playing this way.”

That has been the Tar Heels’ greatest challenge. Game to game – and sometimes even from half to half – UNC often has had difficulty carrying over what it has done well.

In the season-opening victory against Oakland, for instance, the Tar Heels followed their pristine first-half performance with one that was lacking during the final 20 minutes. A week after beating Louisville, UNC looked like a completely different team against UAB. And then the Tar Heels switched it back on for Michigan State.

Marcus Paige, the sophomore guard, said on Wednesday the dramatic swings are “hard to explain.” A few steps away, Johnson said thought about the ups and the downs and he said, “I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”

Then again, how does anyone explain this – these game-to-game dramatics?

“You really don’t,” James Michael McAdoo, the junior forward, said on Wednesday. “We’re not proud of the two losses that we’ve had, but we’ve come on in – we’ve learned from them. We’re just continuing to learn.”

What the Tar Heels have learned, exactly, is difficult to define. They know they’re at their best when they successfully run their offense through the post. They know that playing with the kind of effort they did at UAB isn’t acceptable to Williams, or one another.

Perhaps their greatest lesson in these past two weeks has been that they can play with, and beat, any team in the country. They know the opposite is true, too.

Even so, the Tar Heels of a year ago didn’t have this kind of knowledge.

“Just thinking back to last year in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, when we up to Indiana – we laid an egg up there,” McAdoo said. “That was in the back of my mind coming into here.”

Even in the final minute on Wednesday night, McAdoo said he didn’t feel all that comfortable. He was telling his teammates, he said, not to let up – to play with as much intensity in the final minute as the first. He remembered the recent collapse against Belmont, and one against Duke his freshman season.

This time, though, the Tar Heels didn’t only hold on – they extended their lead. The 14-point final margin was the largest of the game.

People had packed into the Breslin Center expecting a lopsided Michigan State victory. Students came wearing Santa costumes, and ones of cartoon characters. One was a polar bear. In the end, they were mostly silent, and UNC was left to explain another twist in an improbable stretch.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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