UNC attempts to find urgency, fix rebounding before NCAA tournament

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 18, 2014 

— When things were at their worst, North Carolina coach Roy Williams reminded his players of what they’d been at their best.

Two months ago, when UNC was off to its poorest ACC start in school history, Williams sat his team down and showed it highlights of happier times. His players watched themselves make winning plays – the kind of plays they might’ve forgotten how to make – against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky.

Williams on Tuesday said he was thinking of doing something similar now. After a 12-game winning streak that changed the dynamic of their season, the Tar Heels enter the NCAA tournament with two consecutive losses. UNC, the sixth seed in the East, is searching once again for answers before it plays on Friday against 11th-seeded Providence.

“We’re thinking of doing some more things like that,” Williams said on Tuesday of showing his players feel-good video clips. “But the biggest thing is just invest more. You can’t watch the first whatever it was – 30 minutes of the Pittsburgh game and think we were invested as much as we needed to invest.”

Williams has talked about this – about the need to invest more – throughout the season. He derided the Tar Heels’ urgency in November, December and the first half of January and when they turned around their season after that 1-4 conference start, Williams credited the reversal to an increased sense of urgency.

Now, though, urgency has become elusive again. UNC found it last Friday late in the second half of its ACC tournament quarterfinal game against Pitt, but only after the Panthers built a 20-point lead that allowed them to escape with an 80-75 victory.

At the start of that game, the Tar Heels played like a tired, worn-down team. They missed 10 of their first 11 shots from the field, and rebounding seemed like a foreign concept.

“For a while, we were a top-10 rebounding team or a top-20 or whatever we were,” Marcus Paige, UNC’s sophomore guard, said on Tuesday. “We were rebounding really well and we had a good rebounding margin, and obviously that’s slipped.

“Especially against Duke, I can remember they out-rebounded us, and that’s usually something we do well against them. And then the Pitt game, we got dominated on the boards.”

Among all of Williams’ concerns entering the tournament – and there are several – his team’s rebounding woes might top the list. In the regular-season finale, UNC finished its 93-81 defeat against Duke with 20 rebounds – the Tar Heels’ fewest since 1987.

The lack of rebounding carried over to the ACC tournament, where Pitt held a significant rebounding advantage for most of its quarterfinal victory against the Tar Heels. Asked on Tuesday whether his team’s recent rebounding problems were the result of a lack of urgency, Williams provided a short but illustrative answer.

“Well, I think probably some of it, yeah,” he said.

Even toward the end of its winning streak, the Tar Heels weren’t at their best. They struggled through ugly victories against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame before losing at Duke. The start of the NCAA tournament, then, offers a chance for UNC to reset itself and to rediscover the intensity that carried it through an undefeated February.

Williams, seeking to rest his players, gave them Saturday off. The team met on Sunday and watched film, and then gathered at Williams’ house to watch the NCAA tournament selection show. Before that, Paige found himself at the mall toward the end of one of Duke’s games in the ACC tournament, after UNC had gone home.

“Why am I at the mall?” Paige said he asked himself. “We should be there.”

It was a reminder, though, of the stakes in the postseason – that one bad game, or one game without the required urgency, could mean the end.

Williams might choose to show his team highlights of what it has done well, but the sense of finality – that UNC is down to its final loss – might be the greatest motivator of all.

“I feel like those (good) wins, at the end of the season, (don’t) help you now,” Paige said. “The bracket’s set. It doesn’t matter if you won 20 games in row. If you lose in the first game of the tournament, you’re done. And if you win the first game, you get to keep going.”

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

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