The plan was for North Carolina not to practice Monday night, for the Tar Heels to be off – “O-F-F,” coach Roy Williams said Sunday, spelling it out.
Williams had a change of heart, and mind, while he watched his team’s 68-53 victory against Virginia Tech.
It was a slog of an affair at the Smith Center, where the Hokies never really threatened but controlled the tempo nonetheless. UNC committed 17 turnovers, didn’t visit the free-throw line once in the first half and more often than not failed to create any fast-break opportunities.
An artful victory it was not – though at least it lacked the late-game drama that had been characteristic of the Tar Heels’ previous three games entering Sunday, all three decided by two points or less.
Those three games might have caused some heart palpitations. This one likely caused Williams some heartburn.
After he told reporters about his original plan to give his team Monday off, Williams said: “I told them I’d see them at 9 o’clock tomorrow night. We’re going to practice. And we’re going to try to get better.”
The 17 turnovers – “way too many,” he said – bothered him. So did the kinds of passes the Tar Heels made – some strange, hard passes that were easy to receive amid the Hokies’ frantic, pressuring defense.
“You can’t throw bullets all the time,” Williams said.
It wasn’t all bad. The Tar Heels (14-4, 4-1 ACC) led by 13 at halftime and though the Hokies didn’t quit, they never exactly got back into it, either.
UNC usually led by double digits in the second half, with the exception of the brief moments – one of them in the final two minutes – when Virginia Tech cut it to eight.
Then there was freshman forward Justin Jackson. Williams has been wanting him to be more aggressive, to look for his shot more, and Jackson heeded the advice – or the demands.
He finished with 16 points, the most he has scored in a conference game, and also had seven rebounds and four assists. His was a stat line that pleased Williams, but there were too many things he didn’t like – including four turnovers apiece for J.P. Tokoto and Marcus Paige.
After the past three games – a one-point loss against Notre Dame followed by a one-point victory against Louisville and a one-point win against N.C. State – this was supposed to be something of a respite for UNC.
In some ways it was, against a Virginia Tech team that might be the worst in the ACC. To make matters worse for the Hokies (8-9, 0-4), they were without Justin Bibbs, a freshman forward who is their leading scorer. He missed the game while recovering from a concussion.
Still, UNC’s performance left Williams wanting more. As in, in the end, more practice.
“We did some good things and we did some bad things, but I understand why he’s calling it,” said Brice Johnson, who finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds. “We had 17 turnovers. That’s something we shouldn’t be doing. That’s one thing he’s been emphasizing all year.
“We’re going to have bigger and better games, and we can’t play that way.”
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the Tar Heels’ play was their inability to force their desired tempo. UNC prefers to play at fast pace – fast never seems fast enough for Williams – but Virginia Tech forced the game to be played at its preferred crawl.
The Tar Heels finished with six fast-break points, and those opportunities were rare. Jackson said the slow pace definitely frustrated the Tar Heels.
“We love to run,” he said. “We have so many athletic guys that can get out on wings and run. And whenever we have to just score in the halfcourt, it gets slowed down. It definitely can kind of get to you.”
It got to Williams. Then again, a lot of things did. The turnovers. The fact that his team attempted 13 3-pointers in the first half without attempting a single free throw. That’s not exactly the blueprint for his preferred style of offense.
Williams said he couldn’t remember another time when one of his teams failed to shoot a free throw, though he supposed it had happened.
“Not that you should look it up,” he said to reporters. “There’s a lot more things you can do. Go home, get you a glass of wine, see your wife, be nice. If you don’t drink, like me, I’ll have some lemonade.”
Actually, Williams said, he was leaving to go on a recruiting trip. He’ll be back Monday for his radio show – he’d figured he’d eat a meal there, between answering questions – and then it’d be a practice that was off the schedule before making its way back on.
“We’ve tried to cut back practice to take care of our health, but now I want to take care of my health – mentally,” Williams said. “ You know bowl games aren’t on. Last week, Monday night, I was watching the football game.
“I ain’t got nothing to do tomorrow night.”