Rebuilding confidence, UNC hopes to avoid worst ACC start in history

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 17, 2014 

  • UNC vs. Boston College

    When: noon

    Where: Smith Center

    TV/Radio: ESPN/101.5-WRAL

    Projected starting lineups

    UNC (10-6, 0-3 ACC)

    G Nate Britt 5.9 ppg, 2.7 apg

    G Marcus Paige 17 ppg, 4.2 apg

    F J.P. Tokoto 9.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg

    F James Michael McAdoo 14.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg

    F Joel James 3.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg

    Boston College (5-12, 1-3)

    G Joe Rahon 9 ppg, 3 apg

    G Olivier Hanlan 19.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg

    G Lonnie Jackson 6.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg

    F Ryan Anderson 15.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg

    F Eddie Odio 4.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg

    Player to watch

    Marcus Paige, guard, North Carolina

    Perhaps no UNC player benefited from a week without games more than Paige, who has averaged more than 35 minutes per game. Paige broke out of a brief scoring slump with 17 points in UNC’s loss at Syracuse last week, but he has still made six of his past 28 3-point attempts. If UNC is to become the third team this century to make the NCAA tournament after an 0-3 start in the ACC, Paige will have to be instrumental in the turnaround.

    Observations

    The Eagles like to slow down the pace, like Clemson, Virginia and Syracuse. Unlike those teams, though, Boston College does not excel defensively. The Eagles are allowing teams to shoot 45.8 percent from the field, which ranks last in the ACC and 281st nationally. Boston College is allowing an average of 1.14 points per possession, which is also last in the ACC and 331st nationally. … UNC shot less than 40 percent from the field in each of its first three conference games. … The Eagles haven’t won in the Smith Center since 2009.

— North Carolina sophomore guard Marcus Paige said he and his teammates felt more pressure and more dread earlier in the week. That’s when their 0-3 start in the ACC, and the loss they endured at Syracuse last weekend, weighed the heaviest.

As the days passed, though, a sense of anxiousness replaced that pressure. UNC didn’t play during the week, and that was both good and bad for a team that’s in a hurry to create something positive amid a start to conference play that’s among the worst in school history.

“It still feels like the week just drags on when you don’t have multiple games,” Paige said on Friday. “So I’m just ready to get back on the court. I know the rest of my team is feeling the same way, especially after starting the league the way we did. The best way to get that taste out of your mouth is to go out and win a game. …

“So I think we’re really anxious and excited for this opportunity.”

UNC on Saturday hosts Boston College at the Smith Center, where the Tar Heels hope to avoid setting a record. UNC most recently lost its first three ACC games in 1997 – it recovered from that poor start and reached the Final Four later that year. But no UNC team has ever started 0-4 in the ACC.

The Tar Heels admitted they were shaken before they traveled to Syracuse last weekend. Then they returned home with a defeat that, while perhaps expected, further eroded their confidence.

UNC coach Roy Williams spent the past week attempting to restore that confidence, while also focusing on areas of weakness. He has tried to address his team’s defensive deficiencies – particularly its inability to stop penetration – while attempting to jumpstart UNC’s offense, which has been stagnant in conference play.

“We do need (a win),” Williams said. “We’re human. I mean, they’re intelligent kids. They know what’s going on. And I’m just talking to them about getting better every day – ‘Let’s get better today, let’s get better today, let’s get better today, let’s get better today.’ And that’s our focus. We’re not talking about 0-3.”

UNC played three times last week, so the Tar Heels were required to take two days off this week. When they practiced, Williams said, the emphasis was on pushing the pace on offense and creating transition opportunities.

Those have been lacking lately, Paige said, because of defensive issues. The Tar Heels are holding their opponents to 38.5 percent shooting – which ranks 19th nationally – but UNC’s defense hasn’t created a wealth of opportunities on offense recently.

“We’ve been pretty bad on defense the last couple of games,” Paige said. “So if we fix some of the things there, we’ll get a couple of easy primary break options. And then also, we just need to commit to running harder. Our wings need to run better.

“Our bigs need to run the floor better. And myself and Nate (Britt) need to push the ball harder.”

The Tar Heels were in a similar predicament a year ago, when they started 0-2 in the ACC. Then, though, UNC’s problems were easier to diagnose, Williams said.

As a result, the solution was easier. When Williams decided in the middle of last February to insert P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup, the Tar Heels became a more potent offensive team. Now Hairston is gone because of his off-court troubles, and there appears to be no easy fix for what ails Williams’ team.

“We don’t have that capability of getting more scoring in the lineup right now because it’s just not there,” Williams said. “So I really wouldn’t see anything quite as drastic as that.”

About a month ago, UNC was coming off victories against then-No. 11 Kentucky, then-No. 3 Louisville and then-No. 1 Michigan State. The Tar Heels haven’t gone back and studied those games, though Paige said the team has talked about past success “a little bit.”

“But at the end of the day you’ve got to move forward,” he said. “Just like you’ve got to move past those losses, you have to move past those great wins.”

Still, the Tar Heels are seeking the kind of performances that carried them through those early-season tests. They face their greatest one now.

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

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