Roy Williams said Friday he heard Marcus Paige “said something” after North Carolina’s defeat against Virginia this week, but he didn’t know what it was – that he hadn’t heard Paige’s comments or read about them.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he scolded them a little bit,” said Williams, the Tar Heels’ coach.
After all, Williams has done that plenty of times himself.
“I chew their butts out,” he said.
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Paige questioned the commitment of some of his teammates – without naming names – and questioned their effort. The lack of those two intangibles, commitment and effort, was evident, he said, during UNC’s past two games: losses against Louisville and Virginia.
Now comes another opportunity for UNC to show it’s closer to getting it – to playing the way Williams and Paige believe it can. The Tar Heels play Saturday at Boston College where they’ll attempt to end a two-game losing streak that has followed the same pattern.
Against Louisville and Virginia, the Tar Heels played well in the first half. They led by 18 points early in the second half against Louisville before losing in overtime, and they were in the game against Virginia, too, before coming undone in the span of a few minutes midway through the second half.
A mental lapse here, a breakdown in execution there – it was the little things that cost the Tar Heels in the past two games. The little things that led to Paige’s comments, too, when he spoke of a need for change and wondered when that change might transpire.
“I wasn’t saying anything really that couldn’t be seen by everybody on the team if you’re looking objectively,” Paige said Friday. “So it wasn’t anything radical I was shouting out in the locker room or anything like that. And Coach came in and echoed a lot of the same things.
“So we understand what we need to do. I just felt like something needed to be said, because that was two games in a row that were perfect examples of one team buying in, wanting it more and executing their game plan more than us.”
In one sense of the phrase, Williams hasn’t questioned the “buy in” level of his players. They are committed to the program, he said Friday, and he hasn’t sensed they disagree with what he has asked of them.
In another sense of the phrase, though, Williams does indeed desire more buying in. More effort and urgency, especially.
“I have zero worries about our guys disagreeing with anything,” he said. “You know, you’ve just got to be able to get your motor up there a little bit harder. … I don’t have any, any – zero – problems with somebody saying something about you’ve got to play harder and you’ve got to care more and all that kind of stuff.”
If one player is emblematic of UNC’s season, it’s likely junior forward Brice Johnson. He’s brilliant in some games, inconsistent in others. He can be the best player on the floor in some moments but also disappear for long stretches in others.
When he plays well – and he had been playing as well as he ever has entering the Louisville game – the Tar Heels have been at their best overall. But when Johnson has struggled, whether the result of foul trouble or mental lapses that continue to plague him, the rest of the team seems to suffer, too.
Against Louisville, Johnson was in foul trouble from the start. He played 22 minutes, finished with two points and fouled out.
“It’s never been about numbers with Brice,” Williams said. “It’s doing it on the defensive end of the floor, doing it on the backboards, doing it with your sweat. That kind of thing. Because I want more out of him. … Some kids, I don’t make it comfortable for them. Some guys are built for comfort and some guys are built for speed. And Brice is built for speed but likes comfort.”
The same could be said, perhaps, about Williams’ team as a whole. It’s a team still searching for consistent toughness and effort and hustle – searching for an edge – even now, approaching the middle of February.
In addition to Johnson’s inconsistency, the Tar Heels lately haven’t known what to expect out of starting wing forwards J.P. Tokoto and Justin Jackson, either. Tokoto, a junior, finished with one point and one rebound Monday against Virginia.
“Just wasn’t involved,” Williams said. “Just wasn’t involved as much as he wanted to be, I want him to be, the whole bit.”
And Jackson, meanwhile, struggled to assert himself against the Cavaliers stronger wing players. Not long ago, Jackson was playing the best he has during his freshman season. Tokoto was filling the stat sheet with rebounds, assists – doing a bit of everything.
Not long ago, Johnson was in the midst of one of his best stretches in his three seasons – two double-doubles in three games, in which he scored at least 17 points in all three of them.
And not long ago, UNC was in the midst of a six-game winning streak. Now it has lost two in a row, and the Tar Heels have gone on the road – where they’ll be the next three games – searching for what they’ve been missing.