When North Carolina guard Kenny Williams thinks of ACC play, he recalls playing against former Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon, who is now a key player for the Milwaukee Bucks.
And he remembers how physical Brogdon was.
“So strong, old guy, veteran, and he knew his spots,” Williams said.
That’s how each game will be when the Tar Heels begin ACC play. UNC will travel to play Pittsburgh (10-3) on Saturday for its first conference game.
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“The physicality in the ACC is just a different level,” he said.
No. 15 UNC played its final non-conference game of the season on Wednesday night against Harvard (6-6). The Tar Heels, though it wasn’t easy, won 77-57.
Harvard led UNC 21-20 after 12 minutes, and kept the game close in the second half until it went cold from the floor.
The Crimson went 0-for-11 during an eight-minute span midway through the second half, and the Tar Heels went on a 16-1 run to increase their lead to 20 points.
Five players scored in double figures, which UNC coach Roy Williams liked. Senior forward Luke Maye led all scorers with 14 points, and both graduate senior Cam Johnson and freshman Coby White had 13 points.
But Williams also said he didn’t like his team’s shot selection at times, rebounding and the turnovers they made. UNC shot 41.9 percent from the floor for the game, which was its second-lowest field goal percentage of the season. It also had 11 turnovers, seven coming in the second half. And UNC barely won the rebounding battle 38-34.
“Coby (White) took a terrible shot early in the second half and I took him out,” coach Williams said. “Garrison (Brooks) didn’t do what he was supposed to do...Luke took the shot out the phone booth with Spider Man, Superman, everybody else around him, and I took him out...So I told them it’s the big leagues now, not Biddy Basketball.”
The Crimson cut the Tar Heels’ lead to five points early in the second half. But UNC started to switch every ball screen, which threw Harvard off offensively. UNC then went on a 16-1 run over the next eight minutes of the game.
While the Tar Heels struggled shooting, they had success getting to the free throw line and hitting their free throws. They got there 17 times in the second half, and finished the game 19-for-22. Williams said that was the result of attacking the basket.
The Tar Heels enter ACC play with a 10-3 record.
When asked how close his team is to being where he wants them to be, coach Williams said “No where near. Not in the same frickin’ universe.”
Last year, the Tar Heels entered ACC play with a 12-2 record, and finished the regular season 23-9. Their regular season conference record was 11-7, but the Tar Heels advanced to the finals of the ACC tournament before losing to Virginia.
For that, and the number of Quadrant One it had, UNC earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“Everybody is coming to fight and it’s a battle every night,” Kenny Williams said. “We are fighting for regular season, and we are fighting for a tournament position.”
During the 2016-17 season, when UNC won a national championship, it also finished its non-conference schedule at 12-2. UNC went 14-4 during ACC play. The Tar Heels were clearly the best team in the country that year.
Heading into conference play this season, five ACC teams are ranked ahead of the 15th-ranked Tar Heels in the AP Top 25 poll. Duke is ranked No. 1, Virginia is No. 4, Florida State is No. 9 and Virginia Tech is No. 10.
UNC is riding a two-game winning streak after a tough 80-72 loss to No. 19 Kentucky in Chicago on Dec. 22. UNC was 7-0 at the Smith Center in its non-conference games, and just 3-3 in neutral and road games.
UNC also lost to Texas 92-89 on Nov. 22 in Las Vegas, and then-No. 9 Michigan on the road 84-67 on Nov. 28.
UNC senior forward Luke Maye said ACC play, especially on the road, is tough. But Maye said he feels confident this team is heading in the right direction.
“We had three turnovers that I felt like were just passing turnovers and just didn’t make the catch or right pass,” Maye said. “But we can clean that up....I think going into ACC play, we’ve just got to realize we’ve got to step up our game a little bit more.”