North Carolina

UNC approaches basketball season with great expectations, plenty of questions

UNC's Brice Johnson drives around Toby Egbuna during the Tar Heels’ practice at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
UNC's Brice Johnson drives around Toby Egbuna during the Tar Heels’ practice at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Brice Johnson doesn’t remember exactly when those signs went up in North Carolina’s locker room, and in its weight room, but to him it seems like they’ve just been hanging up there since the end of last season – a reminder of failure and, more than that, a motivator.

Written on the signs, said Johnson, the senior forward, is a question: “What can you do to help us finish?”

It is among the most important questions surrounding the Tar Heels – one that as much as any will define whether they go from the good team they were a season ago to something more. Can UNC finish? Can it hold onto leads and stop letting games slip away? Will it be tough enough when toughness matters most?

“I think we’ve got to get better in every area, but that’s one of them,” Roy Williams, the UNC coach, said on Monday during his team’s annual media day. “Last year we had the lead eight times in the second half and didn’t finish it off. And a lot of that is toughness.

“And it’s not just who’s going to stand up and fight somebody.”

Williams’ emphasis on toughness – of finding a way to finish and to execute properly amid a game’s tensest moments – is what led to the signs in the locker room and weight room. They list every game last season that the Tar Heels led in the second half, only to lose.

The signs include the score at the time of UNC’s largest second-half lead – 43-25 at Louisville, for instance – and then the word “loss” beside it with the final score. There were eight of those games.

The one at Louisville. At Duke, where UNC led by 10 in the final minutes before losing in overtime.

There was the home game against Duke, when UNC led by seven early in the second half. And the ACC tournament championship game against Notre Dame, which trailed by nine points with less than 10 minutes to play before winning by eight.

And then there was the final one of the season. The Tar Heels in an NCAA tournament regional semifinal led Wisconsin by seven points with less than 11 minutes to play, only to end their season with a seven-point loss – a defeat that followed the pattern of so many games before it.

UNC’s players ended last season wanting to forget those performances. Instead they’ve been reminded of them nearly every day they’ve walked into the Smith Center.

“All of a sudden one day you look in the locker room and they’re just up there,” Johnson said on Monday of those signs. “And you’re like, ‘Wow. We really did lose those games just like that.’ It’s very hurtful to look at it like that.”

Trouble closing

Had UNC been able to finish even half of those eight games last season, it could have won at Duke, and it just might have won an ACC championship, and perhaps its season would have ended in an NCAA tournament regional final – or beyond. But it didn’t happen that way.

The Tar Heels’ inability to close out would-be victories kept them, in some ways, from reaching their potential. It defined a season of what-ifs and could-have-beens, and those failures have been permanently etched into their minds, what with all the signage around.

“What separates a great team – Wisconsin would be considered a great team last year – and what separated them from us was a couple of possessions,” Marcus Paige, the senior guard, said. “We had a seven-point lead in the second half.

“We had that situation in a lot of games last year, where we had second-half leads and just couldn’t hang on.”

I think this year we’re one of the best. And if we play the best down the stretch then we could be the best. But there’s a big difference there.

UNC coach Roy Williams

Paige and Johnson, who have both played prominent roles since they were freshmen, are two reasons why UNC will likely enter the season ranked among the top five and why the Tar Heels will warrant some consideration for the preseason No. 1 ranking. There are other reasons, too.

The Tar Heels return four starters from last season, and all of their key reserves. Expectations are high for Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward, and his classmates Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, both of whom went through injuries that hampered their progress as freshmen.

“One” of the best

Williams, though, isn’t necessarily entering this season with the same kind of feeling he had before some other memorable seasons. Before UNC won the 2005 national championship, for instance, he said he knew the Tar Heels were at least the second-best team in the country.

In the fall of 2008, before UNC won another national championship the following spring, Williams said he felt confident that team was the best in the nation. This year?

“I think this year we’re one of the best,” Williams said, emphasizing the word “one.” “ And if we play the best down the stretch then we could be the best. But there’s a big difference there.”

Williams went on to list all the questions surrounding this team: Will Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward, take advantage of his improved physique and become more consistent? Will Johnson avoid the mental lapses that have hindered him at times?

How much better can Paige be now that he’s not enduring the plantar fasciitis that limited him throughout last season? And then there’s the greatest question of all – the one of this team’s toughness, of its ability to thrive amid pressure.

Even so, Williams and his players recognize what could be possible. They agree the potential is there.

“Going into the season it’s hard not to think about anything but like a trip to Houston being a success for us,” Paige said, referencing the Final Four host city. “And anything less just not meeting what we think we’re capable of. So I’ll just leave it at that.”

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