Theo Pinson knows what the critics have been saying about North Carolina lately, even amid the Tar Heels’ 12-game winning streak. He has heard the word going around.
“Everybody’s like, ‘They’re not really playing nobody yet,’ ” Pinson, the Tar Heels’ sophomore forward, said on Saturday after UNC’s 89-62 victory against Boston College.
And, indeed, if there’s been anything for UNC’s detractors and doubters to point out and scrutinize, it’d be that the Tar Heels’ schedule hasn’t exactly been demanding during the first half of the conference play. UNC coach Roy Williams has acknowledged as much.
Some of his players have, too. But now the “easy” part of the schedule, if it could be called such a thing, is over. UNC on Monday night plays at Louisville in what is expected to be the Tar Heels’ most difficult ACC game to date. Then they follow that with a trip to Notre Dame on Saturday.
Williams has attempted, like many coaches do, to narrow his players’ focus only to what is right in front of them. Isaiah Hicks, the junior forward, spoke on Saturday of the tried and true “one game at a time” sporting cliché that has served UNC well in recent weeks.
And yet Hicks has peeked ahead on the schedule and seen the trip to Louisville and the one to Notre Dame, which precedes games later in February against Duke and Miami and Virginia.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Hicks said of what’s ahead.
He and his teammates believe they’re ready for it, though. This is the part of the season, Pinson said, that UNC has been most anticipating – the time when it will have the chance to prove itself, again, after a couple of early-season losses against Northern Iowa and Texas.
The Tar Heels haven’t lost since that Dec. 12 game at Texas. There have been 12 consecutive victories, eight of them in ACC games, though UNC’s schedule is unusually back-loaded.
The Tar Heels’ past three games, for instance, have come against three teams – Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Boston College – that were picked to finish among the bottom five teams in the preseason ACC media poll. UNC’s most difficult conference game to this point, based on the preseason poll – hardly a scientific measure – was at Florida State, which was picked to finish sixth in the ACC.
Thus the rumblings that Pinson referenced about the Tar Heels having played “nobody yet.” That won’t be said on Monday night after UNC’s game at Louisville.
“This team has been waiting on that,” Pinson said, nodding his head at the thought of a more challenging stretch. “We’ve been waiting.”
While the Tar Heels have been waiting, at least, they’ve managed to overcome some poor shooting and play that at times has been lackadaisical. At times, even, UNC has appeared bored.
Like when it built a large lead at Virginia Tech only to see the Hokies rally and provide a scare during the second half. Or on Saturday, when the Tar Heels allowed Boston College, the ACC’s worst team, to hang around, and hang around, before seizing control with a 15-0 run toward the end of the first half.
Before the victory on Saturday, UNC had gone three consecutive games shooting less than 40 percent from the field. The team’s best perimeter shooter, senior guard Marcus Paige, had been mired in the worst slump of his time at UNC.
Paige showed signs of breaking out of that on Saturday, though, when he made three 3-pointers and finished with 12 points, and UNC shot better than 50 percent from the field for the 14th time this season. Positive trends for a team that expects to face one of its most significant tests of the season on Monday.
Williams approached the Boston College game Saturday with a simple philosophy: just get better. He wasn’t so much focused on the final score as he was on whether his team improved – especially with what’s ahead.
“I think we have 10 more games,” Williams said on Saturday, reciting the schedule. “Six of them are on the road, and a bunch of the games are against those teams in the top half of the league. If we play the way we played the last four games, it will be very, very difficult to win any of those games.”