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UNC with chance to prove nice guys can finish first

Andrew Carter previews UNC's game against Pitt

VIDEO: The News & Observer's Andrew Carter on three things to watch during North Carolina's game against Pittsburgh on Friday in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.
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VIDEO: The News & Observer's Andrew Carter on three things to watch during North Carolina's game against Pittsburgh on Friday in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.

The thought made Marcus Paige scowl and Joel Berry and Justin Jackson laugh, and it made Brice Johnson stare straight ahead with a blank expression. They’ve all heard it before – that they’re just a bunch of nice, good kids, and that North Carolina is, perhaps, too nice for its own good.

“I’ve heard it,” Paige said after the Tar Heels’ 76-72 victory at Duke on Saturday, his expression a sign that he wanted to entertain the thought no more.

“Yeah, we hear it all the time,” Berry said a couple of days later, laughing at that “nice guy” label.

“I’ve definitely heard that,” Johnson said back in the visitor’s locker room at Duke. “They call us soft. They call us everything in the book.”

For a while now, that has been the word going around about the Tar Heels – that they’re too nice, too laid back or too “soft,” as Johnson put it. And it is one of the primary questions surrounding UNC entering the postseason: Is the team tough enough, and in some ways mean enough, to make a run into late March and early April?

The Tar Heels will start to answer that question on Thursday when they face Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington. And they’ll continue to answer it when the NCAA tournament begins next week.

UNC began the season with aspirations of reaching the Final Four. They aspired to reach a point in the season that no UNC team has since 2009, when the Tar Heels won the national championship.

That 2009 team never endured criticism for being too nice. Not with Tyler Hansbrough in the middle, welcoming contact and playing with the kind of intensity that Williams still uses as the standard to judge others.

Like a lot of intangibles, a team’s toughness – or its nastiness, to put it another way – is difficult to quantify. Some teams seem to have it, though, while others search for it. And Williams and his players have sometimes been left searching for it during the past two seasons.

Even so, Williams recently defended his team’s toughness, which is the intangible he has most often criticized.

“We’ve had a pretty good year so far,” he said. “I mean, we won the ACC regular season. And I think it’s probably the least appreciated, most criticized championship team I’ve ever had.

“Everybody (says), ‘Well, y’all (are) not tough and you blow this lead and y’all can’t guard anybody and y’all can’t shoot.’ And I agree. But we’ve figured out a way.”

The Tar Heels have been tough lately, at least. In their final two victories of the regular season, they churned out victories against Syracuse on senior night in Chapel Hill, and at Duke, where UNC spoiled the Blue Devils’ senior night. In both of those games, victory was in doubt for UNC in the final minutes.

And in both of those games, the Tar Heels encountered the kind of circumstances in which they’ve often failed the past two seasons. After he paused for a moment, wearing that cold stare, Paige considered the question of UNC’s “too nice” reputation after Saturday’s victory at Duke.

“I don’t see a lack of killer instinct today,” Paige said. “That’s all I’ve got to say.”

In some ways Paige personifies the “nice” label that some use to define his team. He has been something of a model college athlete – an academic All-American, the ACC’s top scholar athlete in men’s basketball, a four-year player who will graduate after double-majoring in history and journalism.

He’s thoughtful during interviews after games and remains cool and calm during them. Indeed, Williams said recently of Paige, “He’s one of the nicest young men I’ve ever known in my life.”

In the same sentence, though, Williams described Paige’s other side.

“And he’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever had. (Former Kansas guard) Jacque Vaughn was one of the nicest young men, and he walked across that line, he’d cut your heart out. And so I like a little bit of some of those guys, too.”

It has been questionable, though, whether UNC has enough of those guys. Or enough of that “cut your heart out” mentality to which Williams alluded.

Hansbrough possessed it. Rashad McCants, vilified in recent years after making accusations against Williams amid UNC’s paper-class scandal, was known for playing with an edge, too, during the Tar Heels’ 2004-05 national championship season.

For better or worse, the Tar Heels have lacked such raw, simmering intensity in recent seasons. Johnson, a senior forward, is known for screaming and flexing his muscles after a memorable play, but Williams has often cracked jokes about how difficult it has been to find Johnson’s pulse.

Such commentary, whether said in jest or not, has likely contributed to the perception that surrounds Williams’ team. Presented with that perception earlier this week, both Jackson and Berry had difficulty containing their laughter. Yes, they’d heard the “nice guy” stuff before.

“I try not to listen to it,” said Berry, a sophomore point guard. “I know who I am. I know who this team is, and we have some pretty tough guys. I mean, I don’t know what people’s definition of ‘tough’ is.

“But if tough is using your hands then, OK, yeah, we’re not going to do that. But when it comes down to it, we’re pretty tough. When it gets into hard moments we can get down and guard someone. If that’s what tough means.”

Jackson, meanwhile, said he has learned this season to block out such criticism. He received a lot of it through social media earlier this season, and deleted Twitter from his phone so he’d have less of an opportunity to see what people sometimes directed his way.

In some ways, though, questions of UNC’s toughness are impossible to escape. They’re everywhere.

“We still watch TV,” Jackson said. “We still watch SportsCenter. But at the end of the day, it’s all about what we do on the court and not what other people say. We’re not trying to prove people wrong, that we’re not a tough team or that we’re tougher than that (team) or whatever.

“We’re just trying to do whatever we can to win and whether that’s being quote-unquote tough or whether that’s just playing defense and winning the game, I mean – whatever we have to do to win.”

The Tar Heels did that in the victory at Duke, where they made all eight of their free throws attempts during the final 26 seconds. They did that in the victory against Syracuse on senior night, when UNC found a way to execute offensively just when it seemed like the Tar Heels might succumb to pressure.

There were no questions about toughness after those victories – no thought of UNC being too nice to succeed in times when it often pays to be cold and calculating. Williams earlier this week referenced the old cliché about nice guys, one that’s often credited to Baseball Hall of Famer Leo Durocher.

“What was it Leo said?” Williams asked, before answering his own question. “’Nice guys finish last?’ Nice guys want to win, too.”

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