Coaches in the ACC like to say nothing ever comes easily, and North Carolina’s Roy Williams echoed the thought on Monday during the league’s weekly coaches’ teleconference.
“If you’re not ready to play,” Williams said, “you’re going to get beat.”
That happened to his team on Saturday during a 77-62 loss at Miami, a defeat in which the Tar Heels squandered an early lead and never recovered from one of their worst first halves in Williams’ 14 seasons. Now comes a reprieve, of sorts, at the Smith Center on Tuesday night against Pittsburgh, which is in last place after losing six consecutive conference games.
On paper, this looks like a mismatch – one of the conference’s worst teams against one of the best. But that is misleading, given that few people expected Pitt to falter like this, and because the Panthers, even amid all of the losses, still have the ACC’s top two scorers: Jamel Artis and Michael Young. Williams on Monday spoke of the thin margin in the ACC, the lack of separation.
He remembered a time, back in his early years as an assistant under Dean Smith, when the ACC was a quaint little seven-team conference. Now seven of its 15 teams will surely reach the NCAA tournament, and the conference could be in a position to receive a record-setting 10 NCAA tournament bids, depending on which teams best endure the carnage.
“You’re not going to beat teams unless you have your best effort,” Williams said.
It’s a point that he’ll undoubtedly repeat again and again in the coming days and weeks, because the Tar Heels’ schedule only becomes more daunting. The Pitt game looks like UNC’s last sure-thing victory – if such a thing actually exists (and coaches would surely disagree that it does) – before the Tar Heels arrive at the most difficult portion of their schedule.
After playing Pitt on Tuesday, UNC hosts Notre Dame on Saturday and plays at Duke on Feb. 9. Then five of UNC’s final six regular-season games are at N.C. State, at home against Virginia and Louisville, at Virginia and at home against Duke. When the schedule came out in the fall, it looked like UNC’s best chance to stockpile conference victories would come in January.
At the end of January, the Tar Heels are in first place in the ACC by a half-game, and Tuesday night’s game against Pittsburgh is likely to be as easy as it gets for a while. Not that Williams or his players would say they expect it to be easy. They received a lesson in expectations at Miami, where UNC started fast but faded even more quickly.
“The lesson,” junior forward Justin Jackson said, “is we’ve got to come out and play every single time. Every single game in the ACC is going to be tough, and especially this next little stretch that we’ve got. We play against some really good teams.”
That “next little stretch” that Jackson mentioned began at Miami. It continues Saturday against Notre Dame, and then on into March.
Pitt at No. 12 UNC
When: 7 p.m., Tuesday
Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill
TV: ESPN2 Internet live-stream: WatchESPN app Radio: WTKK-106.1; SiriusXM channel 84.