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UNC winning ugly, seeks to reverse trend at Virginia Tech

Wake’s Cornelius Hudson, right, and North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks, left, go after a loose ball during their game Jan. 20. UNC coach Roy Williams didn’t like way team practiced before the team’s sloppy win.
Wake’s Cornelius Hudson, right, and North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks, left, go after a loose ball during their game Jan. 20. UNC coach Roy Williams didn’t like way team practiced before the team’s sloppy win. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Roy Williams said he was “tired of those guys on TV talking about how good North Carolina is” and he went on for a while, too, about his team’s lackluster practice habits of late.

“Anybody that’s ever breathed and walked a step could have watched us (struggle) in practice this week, because we did nothing good,” Williams said last Wednesday.

And yet he was speaking after a Tar Heels’ victory – an 83-68 win against Wake Forest – that was never in doubt. The way Williams was talking it sounded like UNC lost.

Except UNC won, convincingly. And it won convincingly in its previous game, too, despite not playing particularly well. Both in the victory against Wake Forest and in a 67-55 victory against N.C. State last weekend, the Tar Heels shot poorly, played sloppily and, ultimately, had little trouble winning.

It is both a positive and a negative: a testament to UNC’s ability to overcome poor performances and win but also an indication that a strong offensive team, perhaps the Tar Heels’ best since their 2009 national championship team, isn’t immune to producing some duds.

“It’s good to get wins like that,” senior forward Brice Johnson said after the victory against Wake Forest, “because there are going to be nights when you don’t shoot it well like we have been the past couple of games. But at the same time you do want to get better, because there are teams that are probably going to be better than that.”

And that’s where the Tar Heels find themselves: running out of time to reverse a troubling trend – if a two-game stretch constitutes a trend – before their schedule turns more difficult. UNC’s game at Virginia Tech on Sunday continues what is, on paper, the easiest stretch of UNC’s ACC schedule.

The Tar Heels have yet to play against a team picked to finish among the top five in the ACC in the league’s preseason media poll. Three of UNC’s six ACC games have come against Wake Forest, Clemson and Georgia Tech, which were picked among the bottom five teams in the conference.

Virginia Tech, which UNC plays on Sunday in Blacksburg, Va., was picked to finish second-to-last in the ACC. Boston College, which plays at UNC on Jan. 30, finished last in the preseason media poll and appears, by a wide margin, to be the ACC’s weakest team.

Before his team’s victory against Wake Forest this past week, Williams spoke of the extreme imbalance in the schedule, which in February and early March will be more difficult than it has been in recent weeks. It has been important for UNC to capitalize on opportunities to stockpile wins, and it has.

The Tar Heels remain the ACC’s only undefeated team in conference play. Except for Louisville, which has lost one conference game, every other league team already has lost at least two conference games.

And yet UNC has built a lead in the standings despite two lackluster performances in its past two games. The Tar Heels shot a season-low 37.9 percent against N.C. State. And then shot 38.4 percent against Wake Forest. Those were its two worst shooting performances of the season.

Williams said there was no satisfaction in winning ugly. Not after the way his team has been practicing, at least. Still, the Tar Heels avoided the kind of thing those performances have often generated in recent years: a loss.

“It shows that once we get everybody going at the same time, it’s going to be something special,” Theo Pinson, the sophomore forward, said on Wednesday. “And I can’t wait for that moment to come. We believe in each other, we trust in each other. And we know we can do it at some point.”

According to data at kenpom.com UNC’s effective field goal percentage – a composite metric that includes all field goal attempts and offers more weight to made 3-pointers – was less than 42 percent in each of its past two games. And yet the Tar Heels prevailed by double digits in both.

Last season, the Tar Heels were 0-3 when its effective field goal percentage was less than 42 percent. Two seasons ago they were 1-3 in those games and the season before that they were 2-7.

And so UNC has proven in the past week that it’s more capable of winning when it doesn’t play particularly well. Now the Tar Heels want to avoid making a habit of it.

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