UNC building an identity on Maui

Remember those days – those seasons, really – when North Carolina coach Roy Williams bemoaned his team’s lack of toughness and effort? Haven’t heard much about that six games into this season.

Indeed, Williams wasn’t pleased with how his team played during a 15-point victory against Hawaii at the start of a long trip (way) west. The Tar Heels sputtered through that game, looked sloppy and played with a general sense of malaise.

There has been no hangover, though, since. UNC responded to Williams’ post-Hawaii challenge with a resounding victory against Chaminade, and then the Tar Heels followed that up with what was perhaps among their best early-season performances in recent years: the 107-75 victory on Tuesday against Oklahoma State.

Now, a couple things before going forward: UNC had vastly more talent than Chaminade, and significantly more than Oklahoma State. And so the Tar Heels should have won those games relatively comfortably, nearly by default. But it’s the “how” that’s most encouraging for UNC six games into this young season.

The Tar Heels, who play against Wisconsin in the Maui Invitational championship game on Wednesday, aren’t merely winning. They’re winning with a high level of execution on offense, and winning with toughness and tenacity – qualities that haven’t always been associated with the Tar Heels in recent seasons. Justin Jackson, the junior wing forward, was asked on Tuesday night whether UNC was “clicking on all cylinders.”

“You know, clicking on all cylinders, that’s a scary term because it’s only the sixth game of the season,” Jackson said. “So to look down here and see, I guess, six people in double figures, you know, that’s pretty crazy against a really good team. So I think we can still get a whole lot better.”

The foundation appears to have been set, though. For years Williams had pleaded with his teams to play harder, to give more. The Tar Heels did those things at the end of last season, during their run to the Final Four and national championship game, and whatever worked then seems to have carried over into this season.

There’s a difference, too.

“I would say the way last year ended,” Isaiah Hicks said, describing that difference. “For us, we look at that as our motivation to get back. We know it’s not going to be easy. Every game is not going to be easy – of course there’s going to be some games we’ve got to grind it out. But that’s the big thing. … We’ve just got to make sure (Williams) doesn’t have to coach that – get him to coaching basketball.”

On Monday against Chaminade, it was Hicks and Meeks passing the 20-point mark in the same game for the first time. On Tuesday, Joel Berry and Jackson did the same. Two games in Maui, and four different players have scored at least 20 points. And so the balance is there. So, too, are those intangibles that Williams has spent so much time talking about in recent years.

The Tar Heels took this trip, in part, because coming to Maui is always an exercise building an identity. (And, yes, in part because Williams simply loves coming here.) Players are together for a week at all times. There’s no escaping your teammates, or the coaching staff – or Williams’ demands and lessons. He spoke a lot on Tuesday, before the Oklahoma State game, of toughness and effort.

During the game, though, he didn’t have to spend much time on it. His players had received the message. The qualities Williams had long sought finally appear as though they come naturally.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter