College Basketball Nation: Leslie McDonald

SAN ANTONIO -- DeAndre Kane was off to the side praying to himself.

Georges Niang could feel his heart about to beat through his chest.

And Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg couldn’t stop worrying all that might go wrong if officials put even a sliver of time back on the clock for North Carolina to attempt one final shot.

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Kane
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesDeAndre Kane's double-double has Iowa State in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000.
Instead, after several minutes when nobody at AT&T Center dared more than whisper, officials finally called the game, sending the Tar Heels home, the Cyclones to the Sweet 16 and Kane to the March Madness pantheon of heroic, game-winning baskets.

“To have it end like that,” North Carolina forward James Michael McAdoo said, “it’s heartbreaking.”

Sunday evening in the East Region, it ended like this: after McAdoo swished two free throws to tie the game, Kane drove the floor, sliced through two Tar Heels defenders and banked in a layup off the glass with 1.6 seconds remaining to put the Cyclones up two.

North Carolina’s Nate Britt raced the ball back past half court, and called timeout after seeing he still had a second or so left for the Tar Heels to attempt a desperation shot. But it was only a mirage. The operator had started the clock a second too slow. And after reviewing replay for what seemed like an eternity to anyone donning cardinal and gold or Carolina blue, the officials concluded the game was over.

Third-seeded Iowa State 85. Sixth-seeded North Carolina 83.

“I was definitely praying that they'd call the game,” said Kane, who carried the Cyclones back from an eight-point deficit in the final four minutes with a series of tenacious plays, including the game-winner.

Hoiberg, who is taking Iowa State to Madison Square Garden and the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000 when he was still a guard for the Chicago Bulls, wasn’t so sure they would.

“The last sequence, I was nervous,” said Hoiberg, whose team was bounced from the third round of the tournament last year on a buzzer-beating shot from Ohio State’s Aaron Craft. “I didn't know if they were going to get the ball over half court where they've got so many guys that can go and jump a lot higher than our guys. You worry about a lob play. They run a very good elevator play. They ran it against North Carolina State at the end and ran through a gap to get them a shot. Those were the things I was envisioning in my head.”

Then the officials called both him and North Carolina coach Roy Williams to the scorer’s table and revealed time had in fact run out on the Tar Heels’ tumultuous season.

Williams instantly gave Hoiberg, his friend and rival from coaching against Hoiberg as a player from the old Big Eight, a congratulatory hug.

Niang, who had broken his right foot in Iowa State’s second round game Friday, jumped off the bench onto his left foot.

And Kane, who was sensational down the stretch, threw both arms in the air and let out a gigantic smile before rejoining his teammates to celebrate Iowa State’s biggest win-or-go-home victory of this millennium.

On the other side, McAdoo, Marcus Paige and Leslie McDonald, who themselves hit several big shots, had the expressions of utter disbelief they wouldn’t get another chance to keep their season going.

“Kane hit an unbelievable shot, and when you think you have an opportunity at the end and realize the time went out and you don't have the opportunity, it's tough,” McDonald said. “You're hoping that you're going to have that opportunity, but you don't. It hit us hard.”

Before the final sequence, both teams spent the game hitting each other hard.

Even without Niang, their third-leading scorer and tallest starter, the Cyclones jumped out to a nine-point lead in the first half.

Iowa State seemed poised to put the game away, especially after UNC forward Brice Johnson had to leave the game for good with a sprained ankle. But as they did after losing P.J. Hairston and their first three ACC games, the Tar Heels battled back. And with Paige finding his stroke from the outside and Kennedy Meeks dominating the paint, the Tar Heels led 76-68 going into the last four minutes.

[+] EnlargeNorth Carolina
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsFor the second straight year, North Carolina failed to advance past the Round of 32.
But Iowa State never panicked. And then, the Cyclones counterpunched.

Naz Long and Monte Morris nailed 3-pointers, then Kane hit Melvin Ejim streaking down the court with a one-handed bounce pass to tie the game at the two-minute mark.

“It was a heck of a basketball game,” said Williams, who failed to take North Carolina out of the NCAA tournament's opening weekend in consecutive seasons for the first time. “If you didn't care who won the game, you had to be entertained.”

Kane, however, wasn’t done. And during McAdoo’s final free throws, Hoiberg dialed up a play for his point guard, who weaved his way down the floor before splitting the defense down the lane for the acrobatic basket, scoring the last of his game-high 24 points.

After Britt’s timeout, McAdoo and Paige and McDonald stood silent, hoping they’d get their own chance at a March miracle that wouldn’t be coming.

“We were prepared to finish the game out,” Kane said. “But it was great they called it.”
What a difference a delay makes.

North Carolina’s postponed first meeting with Duke might have set in motion a crazy change of fortunes for both squads. The Tar Heels had confidence for the game originally scheduled for Feb. 12, but the Blue Devils had more.

Around Chapel Hill, the game didn’t have the same buzz as in previous years because Carolina fans still looked at their team skeptically. Something happened when the game was moved to Feb. 20 after a snowstorm stopped Duke’s charter bus from delivering them down U.S. 15-501.

It turned an accommodating Dean E. Smith Center crowd into an angry one.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige, Rodney Hood, Quinn Cook
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Paige said UNC fans were anxious when the Tar Heels played Duke after weather forced a schedule change.
“The fact that it was postponed gave it a little bit different energy in the gym,” UNC guard Marcus Paige said. “People were more anxious. Our fans were chomping at the bit for Duke to come play us. It gave it a cool and unique and interesting dynamic to the game.”

More importantly for the Tar Heels, it gave them the validation they sorely needed. They’d won seven in row before handing then-No. 5 Duke a 74-66 loss, but that was the game that made the other wins matter.

“You still have people now congratulating you on the win over Duke even though you’ve played [four] games afterwards,” UNC senior guard Leslie McDonald said. “I don’t know; it’s just something about playing against Duke. I think that game really got everybody together and opened their eyes, saying, 'This is a good team.'”

The Tar Heels are now the self-assured team heading into Durham, with their winning streak reaching 12 in a row. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the 10 previous times Carolina has faced the Blue Devils after winning at least 12 in a row, the Heels have won nine of the meetings.

It presumably emboldened some North Carolina students to temporarily rename “Krzyzewskiville,” the area where Duke students camp out for game tickets. Someone painted a white sheet with “Williamsville” written in Carolina blue and hung it up in front of Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Yes, nothing speaks of confidence like trying to clown your rival. No one was trying to taunt Duke before the postponement. But even North Carolina coach Roy Williams acknowledged that victory added an exclamation point to their winning streak.

“We know that we can win the game because we already have,” Williams said. “Does that mean we’re going to win [Saturday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN]? No, and I think our players understand that. Whether it’s validation, as you said, or just us gaining some confidence from the game, I think there is a difference.”

Duke finds itself in need of a confidence boost after losing at Wake Forest on Wednesday. The Blue Devils are no longer being touted as a potential No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament. If they lose again to the Heels, they could also lose playing the opening NCAA tournament weekend in Raleigh, N.C.

Duke senior forward Josh Hairston, playing in what will be in his final game in Cameron Indoor Stadium against the Heels, called the loss to the Demon Deacons “probably our worst defeat of the season.”

“We basically low-balled the game,” Hairston said. “We thought that because of who we were, our ranking and all that, they would lay over for us.”

A troubling pattern is emerging that could make for a short postseason showing if the Blue Devils don’t rectify it.

In its loss to Carolina, Duke couldn’t find a way to close out the game. The Tar Heels outscored the Blue Devils 18-6 in the final 4:55. Duke was 2-for-7 from the floor during that stretch, missed all four 3-point attempts and committed two turnovers.

Duke’s 82-72 loss to Wake Forest produced a similar stretch. The Blue Devils were outscored 23-6 over the final 5:44, in which they shot 2-for-10 from the floor, missed all six 3-point attempts and committed six turnovers.

“I think we let up in certain games, not all the time; we let up when we get a lead and that can’t be the case going forward,” said Duke forward Rodney Hood.

Another cause for concern is the Blue Devils’ 3-point shooting. They ranked second nationally, making 42 percent from behind the arc, through their first 25 games. Since going 5-of-22 against Carolina, they have shot just 27 percent from 3-point range in their last four games.

Hood said the shooting will improve if the Blue Devils revert to making the extra pass instead of trying to score as individuals. He said they’ve been working on it since the Virginia game in mid-January, but it was reiterated after going 6-of-27 against Wake.

“Sometimes one game can devastate you or it can make you better. I think Wake Forest made us better,” Hood said. “Before Wake Forest we were playing very good basketball in that stretch we had. We’re confident we’re not looking at it like the season is over. We’re confident for [Carolina].”

Duke will face a confident Carolina team and the Blue Devils are partly to blame for the Heels' rise.

“It has been a lot more positive vibes around here. People are lot more optimistic about what we can do later this month and in the [NCAA] tournament,” Paige said. “We’re obviously feeling the same way. Even though we’ve played ugly the last couple of games, we’re still able to win and win consistently and that kind of thing helps you later on in March.”

3-point shot: Player, teams of the week

February, 24, 2014

ESPN reporter Andy Katz hands out awards for college basketball's player and teams of the week.

Observations: UNC 105, Wake Forest 72

February, 22, 2014

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina’s loss that started a downward spiral now seems like it happened in a different season.

The Tar Heels were certainly a different team when they suffered a 73-67 loss at Wake Forest last month. That was the first of an 0-3 start to ACC play which had the Heels at their lowest point. They’ve risen quite a bit since then, avenging their previous defeat by obliterating the Demon Deacons, 105-72, on Saturday for their ninth straight win.

It’s the longest win streak since the 2011-12 squad also won nine. The 2008-09 national championship team was the last to win 10 consecutive.

After the loss at Wake, UNC coach Roy Williams pointed out the team didn’t pay enough attention to the scouting report. After his team's win Saturday, he praised their focus.

“Our kids have shown a greater attention to details,” Williams said. “They’ve shown a greater sense of urgency.”

The Heels’ loss at Wake was filled with botched defensive assignments and poor shooting. The Heels highlighted their win Saturday by shooting 57.4 percent from the field -- the highest for ACC play -- and holding Wake’s leading scorer Codi Miller-McIntyre scoreless for the first time all season.

More observations from Carolina’s victory:

• Senior Leslie McDonald followed his 21-point performance against Duke by scoring a team-high 19 points against Wake Forest. In both games, he has shot a combined 14 of 21 from the field. In his previous 12 ACC games he was shooting 30 percent (35-116) from the floor.

“He’s been rushing it a little bit, I think, pressing a little bit previously because he is a good shooter,” Williams said. “He’s been shooting it, it’s just not going in. The last two games he is taking better shots. Shot selection is always a huge factor in percentage, but it helps when that first shot goes in.”

The reason for McDonald’s turnaround can be summed up by a first half exchange against the Deacons. McDonald had the ball at the top of the key for a good shot. He passed it up, however, then ran off a screen and got the ball back for a better shot. He knocked down the 3-pointer, one of his five makes for the game.

[+] EnlargeLeslie McDonald
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsLeslie McDonald led all scorers with 19 points in the Tar Heels' blowout win over Wake Forest.
“I’m not really trying to hunt for my shot, if it’s open, [I] take it, if I see somebody else open, [I] do the right thing,” McDonald said. “I’ve been here for so long so I know what’s a good shot and what’s a bad shot so I try to take good shots.”

Williams said McDonald has only taken two bad shots in the past two games.

• Thanks in part to McDonald, Carolina made a season high 11 3-pointers. The Heels shot 73.3 percent from behind the arc (11-for-15), which also set a school record for highest percentage* with at least 10 made in a game.

“Of all the teams to break that record,” Williams said. “Unbelievable.”

Walk-on Wade Moody, who was scoreless all season, came off the bench with the win secured to make both of his 3-point attempts. Nate Britt, who previously only had two made 3s this season, also made one in the game’s closing minutes.

Against better competition, the Heels will remain reliant almost exclusively on Marcus Paige and McDonald for their 3-point shooting. McDonald was 17 of 70 (24.2 percent) in ACC play, but has made six of his last 10. If he can remain hot the Heels will be a tough team to defend.

(*Carolina shot 12 of 15 from 3-point range against Duke on March 5, 1983, but the experimental line back then was just 17 feet, nine inches.)

• Carolina has shot above its season average from the free throw line for three straight halves now. The Heels have shot 62 percent as a team, which could end up being the lowest in school history for a season. Starting with their 13-for-17 performance in the second half against Duke then going 16-of-17 in the first half against Wake and 8-of-12 in the second half, are the Heels starting to turn the corner?

“Nobody can answer that question,” Williams said. “I got 100 letters from people this year who say they can fix free throws. It’s the dumbest damn thing I ever heard in my life. I’m not the smartest guy in the world but I’m not the dumbest either. If I could fix it I would have already fixed the thing.”

For a stretch between the end of the Duke game and the first half against Wake, eight different UNC players combined to make 21 consecutive free throws. Williams joked that the “stars and the moon aligned properly.”

Carolina vs. Duke: The key matchups

February, 20, 2014

Here's a look at the individual matchups that could determine Thursday night's game between North Carolina and Duke:

McAdoo vs. Parker

James Michael McAdoo is coming off his worst game of the season. He fouled out scoreless having played just 13 minutes in Monday's win over Florida State. If the Kentucky game was any indication, McAdoo will be up for facing Jabari Parker. McAdoo rendered Kentucky’s Julius Randle, another highly-touted freshman, a non-factor offensively during the Heels' win over the Wildcats.

Parker will be more of a challenge because he’s more comfortable stepping out on the perimeter than Randle. McAdoo may want Parker to drift out, however, as Parker has scored more than 20 points in three of Duke’s last four games while making more of a concerted effort to stay in the paint.

“He’s taking it upon himself to get the basket, he’s posting up a lot more. That’s where he’s most effective," Duke’s Rodney Hood said of Parker. “Not saying he can’t hit a jump shot, [but in the paint] that’s where he can punish people.”

[+] EnlargeSulaimon
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesDuke's Rasheed Sulaimon has the length to make scoring a little tougher for UNC point guard Marcus Paige.
Sulaimon on Paige

Rasheed Sulaimon has started three of the last four games at point and could be matched up with Marcus Paige, the Heels’ leading scorer. At 6-foot-4, Sulaimon brings a little more length than Tyler Thornton or Quinn Cook and could make scoring a little more difficult for Paige. Florida State tried the same strategy by using the 6-foot-5 Aaron Thomas on Paige. It was effective for a half until the Heels started running Paige off more screens and he lit it up with 14 points in a nine-minute span in the second half. That went right along with Paige’s recent trend of producing big in the second half after a slow start.

“I don’t let my performance in one half dictate how I feel the rest of the game. I’m usually pretty even keeled throughout the game,” Paige said. “I’m not going to let a poor shooting performance or a couple of turnovers in the first half affect my mindset for the second half because I know my teammates are counting on me to produce.”

Tokoto on Hood

J.P. Tokoto is accustomed to drawing the opponent's best wing player, having just chased around Pittsburgh’s Lamar Patterson for the better part of a game. Hood may be the best player Tokoto will have faced this season. Hood isn’t one-dimensional. He’s shooting 45 percent from 3-point range, yet he can put the ball on the floor and create shots on his own. Tokoto said his defensive strategy doesn't change regardless of the opponent.

“I just approach every game with the mentality that I’m going to beat him up defensively,” Tokoto said. “Not so much foul, but just kind of get into him, get the ball out of his hands, keep the ball out of his hands -- whoever it is.”

[+] EnlargeDez Wells
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsUNC's Kennedy Meeks has size on his side, but Duke's Amile Jefferson will try to counter with quickness.
Jefferson on Meeks

Kennedy Meeks played arguably his second-best game of the season against Florida State (trumped only by his Louisville performance of 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists). He scored a career-high 23 points on 11 of 12 shooting from the field, and most of those baskets were point-blank putbacks.

Duke's Amile Jefferson, meanwhile, has been outsized all season. He’s listed as 6-foot-9, 210 pounds. Meeks is listed at 6-foot-9, 290 pounds.

“For me it’s about fighting the other guy because a lot of times they’re bigger, stronger, height-wise,” Jefferson said. “For me it’s about using my quickness to beat them up and down the floor length, on offense and defense. Really it’s just about fighting the entire game, making sure they feel me every possession.”

McDonald & Cook vs. Slumps

Carolina’s Leslie McDonald and Duke’s Cook are fighting similar slumps. McDonald has made just two of his last 15 from 3-point range and is 8 of 31 from the field since scoring a season-high 20 points against NC State on Feb. 1.

“He’s a phenomenal shooter from outside. We need him, and he knows that,” McAdoo said. “We’re not going to put too much pressure on him because as you’ve seen, we are still capable. But hopefully [against Duke] his shot is falling. When he is on, he’s just another great player, an added dimension.”

Cook’s recent performance against Maryland highlighted his inconsistencies. It was the only game this season that he didn’t record an assist, and he also had three turnovers. He played a season-low 14 minutes in the game.

If either player can emerge in this game, it could be a huge boost for his respective team.

The X-factors

  • Carolina’s Brice Johnson just posted his second double-double of the season with 14 points and 11 rebounds against Florida State. Johnson could see extended minutes if the Heels are hurt by Duke pulling its five out to the perimeter on pick-and-rolls. Johnson is better suited to defend it than Meeks or Joel James.
  • Duke’s Andre Dawkins shoots like every shot is going in and was a big factor off the bench when he scored a season-high 20 in the Blue Devils' win at Pittsburgh in late January.

Confidence restored in Carolina

February, 5, 2014
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Out of shape and physically unimpressive, the media horde that follows North Carolina basketball is similar to most around the country. Yet during the Tar Heels’ 1-4 start in ACC play, head coach Roy Williams joked his team wasn’t much better.

“At that point, we didn’t think we could beat five of [the media contingent present] and y’all don’t look that impressive as a basketball team,” Williams said.

North Carolina can exhale now that the same can no longer be said about the Heels.

They’ve got the sorely needed confidence boost after the sluggish start to conference play, capped off with Tuesday’s 75-63 win over Maryland. The Heels now own a four-game winning streak -- their longest of the season -- and are above .500 in league play for the first time.

[+] EnlargeUNC/Maryland
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsFour consecutive wins have Marcus Paige and North Carolina above .500 in ACC play heading into a tricky four-game stretch.
“We’ve definitely hit our stride, our defensive intensity has increased, and it’s a lot different than it was the first couple of ACC games,” said sophomore guard Marcus Paige, who scored a game-high 25 points, his personal best in a conference game. “That’s what allowed us to be successful, so if we keep that up I think we’re going to reel off a couple more wins hopefully.”

The Heels will need every bit of their newfound confidence. They enter arguably their toughest four-game stretch in conference play, starting with Saturday’s game at Notre Dame. Following the game in South Bend, Ind., the Heels return home for Duke and Pittsburgh before ending with a trip to Florida State.

Back when Carolina couldn’t beat the media, those four games truly would have been cause for anxiety. Now, they are a simply a welcomed challenge.

“I think they are more confident,” Williams said. “I think they’ve bought in to the sense of urgency issue that we’ve been preaching all year long. I think we are getting a little better defensively.”

Senior guard Leslie McDonald said the turnaround came when the team went “back to basics” and raised their intensity in practice. He added that everyone was pushing themselves a little bit harder and it has paid off in their wins.

“We had the mind frame of we had to be more competitive -- and that’s not talk,” McDonald said. “You can’t just teach somebody to be more competitive; you’ve got to have that will inside of you.”

The confidence factor has manifested itself in many ways for the Heels. Check the fast starts they’ve had in games against NC State and Maryland. They led by 14 points after eight minutes against the Wolfpack and had jumped ahead by 16 points in just five minutes against the Terps.

“It doesn’t always happen, but it’s definitely something that helps us when we see what we’re capable of doing,” junior forward James Michael McAdoo said. “It definitely gives us that cushion as far as NC State, and then [Maryland] just getting that little cushion where we can afford to make mistakes.”

That’s also where confidence comes in because Maryland, after trailing by 16 in the first half, managed to cut its deficit to three. But every time the Terps made a push, Carolina had a response and expanded its lead to the point where it never was less than six in the second half.

McAdoo had 12 points and eight rebounds, but Williams added that his stat line wasn’t reflective of the effort he brought to the floor. And fortunately for the Heels, he has been consistently bringing energy to the lineup.

“His effort has really been important to us the last four or five games,” Williams said.

The next four games could determine a lot about what direction the Heels’ season will go. But the good thing for the Heels, according to forward Brice Johnson, is the past four games established them back on the right path.

“We know we can be really good when we play with a sense of urgency like we did in the first five minutes of the game,” said Johnson, who went 8-for-8 from the field and had 19 points. “You see everybody was running around having a good time, stealing the ball. ... We play like that every night, we can keep this streak going.”

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina knew it was capable of a performance like Sunday’s 80-61 beatdown of Clemson. The Tar Heels just needed a reminder.

So coach Roy Williams had a video spliced together of clips from wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky and showed it to his team on Saturday. Carolina’s problem all season has been trying to sustain the urgency and effort that it showed in those nonconference games. The Heels finally revisited it against Clemson.

Williams doesn't have a formula to ensure they continue to play with such urgency, but he knows they can’t win without it.

“We have no chance if we don’t do that,” Williams said. “I’ve had some teams that were gifted and could win without their best effort. This is a team that really needs to have that maximum effort.”

The win over Clemson had little to do with any technical changes Williams made. He didn’t all of a sudden press more or use zone or come up with a new offensive set that the Tigers weren’t prepared to face.

The Heels simply ran to recover defensively on picks a little faster and tried for rebounds a little harder and competed a little bit better than they have for any game since the new year began. That’s something the Heels can do no matter the opponent.

“They played with much more competitive spirit than I’ve seen on them in some other games,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said.

[+] EnlargeUNC Celebrates
Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesJames Michael McAdoo, Kennedy Meeks and the rest of the Tar Heels were in a good mood Sunday given their effort against Clemson.
Williams said he didn’t mention Carolina’s absurd home winning streak against Clemson, which now stands at 57-0, while his team prepared for Sunday’s game.

Truthfully, the streak did have a little something to do with why the Heels played with an added bounce.

“We definitely didn’t want to be that team to let the streak go down,” forward James Michael McAdoo said. “Definitely just came down to playing with pride. We didn’t talk about it that much but in the back of our heads we knew that we weren’t going to be that team today.”

Since Carolina's loss to Virginia on Monday, Williams spent the week of practice preaching urgency. He had the team watch a montage from its three best wins that showed times where players dove to the floor for a loose ball; or crashed the boards for offensive rebounds; or did something as simple as making the proper rotation on defense.

“It’s almost like you forget about it, but you look back and we beat some really talented teams,” said sophomore guard Marcus Paige, who had 15 points and five assists. “We kind of just went back to remind us that we can be really good if we invest.”

The Heels showed they were all in early.

If there was ever a game to go through the motions it was this one. The Tigers have been coming to Chapel Hill to play Carolina since 1926 and have never left with a victory. No one would have questioned it had the Heels come out with little emotion given the opponent.

McAdoo, who scored a game-high 22 points with seven rebounds, proved early North Carolina’s effort would be different. On a Paige missed jumper, McAdoo dove on the floor to corral the long rebound and called timeout as Clemson players surrounded him. Coming out of the timeout, Nate Britt hit a 3-pointer to extend the Heels' lead to 15.

Hustle was contagious as J.P. Tokoto started a fast break by also diving to the floor for a loose ball. Although Leslie McDonald missed a 3-point attempt in transition, Kennedy Meeks was there for the offensive rebound and even grabbed his own miss before converting.

“You talk about winning basketball plays, when James Michael tonight dives on the floor and gets us an extra possession, when J.P. dives on the floor in the first half -- those are winning plays,” Paige said. “They showed us that when we make those, and we have a conscious effort to make those, everything goes a lot more smoothly.”

The Heels (12-7, 2-4 ACC) caught a break in their schedule too. Their next four games come against teams with losing records in the ACC, starting with Georgia Tech on Wednesday.

If Carolina needs another reminder moving forward, Williams can show clips from the Clemson game as a standard of effort.

McDonald, who started for just the third time this season, said the Clemson game should be the “primary example of what we should do every game.”

“We visually see what this high level of intensity and sense of urgency can do for our team,” said McDonald, who ended his slump with 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting. “It can really help us so we just need to feed off it.”

Heels no longer get benefit of doubt

January, 9, 2014
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Fans trickling out of the Dean Smith Center after North Carolina 's third home loss of the season could engage in a lot of blame and finger-pointing.

They should start with Louisville.

Then Michigan State.

And yes, Kentucky, too.

Carolina's trio of wins over ranked teams built a substantial benefit of doubt cache that it continued to tap -- until Wednesday's 63-57 loss to Miami.

[+] EnlargeMcDonald
Andy Mead/Icon SMIThe reinstatement of senior guard Leslie McDonald hasn't paid dividends for the scuffling Tar Heels yet.
The Tar Heels are on empty right now. They're wounded, they're hurt, they're experiencing more doubt now than they did after losses to Belmont and UAB.

"There's no question we're feeling stress," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "You do that at North Carolina, you're not supposed to lose."

The Tar Heels dropped to 0-2 in the ACC for the second straight season and the third time under Williams. The first time it happened, the Heels went on to win the 2009 national championship.

Against the Hurricanes, who entered 0-2 in conference play, there weren't any moments to suggests the Heels are a potential title team.

"We're a little shook, 0-2 in league play is not the way we expected to start," said guard Marcus Paige. "Everyone faces a little adversity here and there. I know we have guys who are not ready to give in and quit, but this group is tough enough to make things happen. We just have to change."

Williams was almost as emotional postgame as he tends to be during season-ending news conferences after a NCAA tournament loss.

"When you go to school here and you coach here as an assistant, and you come back and coach here, it's a feeling of ownership and it's a feeling of pride," Williams said. "And right now I'm not doing a very good job with this basketball team. That's the hardest thing there is that I've ever had to say."

The Heels have shown all along they're a team with a thin margin of error and a thick stack of flaws. Carolina did a good job of masking them for most of the season.

There was a thought that P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald would return and their inconsistencies and deficiencies would go away. Once it was known that only McDonald would be reinstated, nothing has really changed from the North Carolina team of the preseason.

The Tar Heels are still limited from the perimeter. They are still limited when forced to play a half-court game. Miami exposed both of those weaknesses.

The Canes held the Heels to a season-low 23 points in the first half.

Paige, the Heels' leading scorer, struggled for the second straight game shooting 2-of-15 from the field and tied his season low -- set Sunday in the loss to Wake Forest -- with eight points.

McDonald, who is second on the team in 3-pointers, shot 3-of-12 from the field and also had eight points.

Miami played zone the entire game, which the Heels will see again Saturday at No. 2 Syracuse.

Here's the part where a public service announcement on Carolina's 3-0 record against ranked teams this season would have come up a week ago. That was before back-to-back losses against teams expected to finish in the lower tier of the ACC.

Freshman guard Nate Britt said the team hasn't been dwelling on those wins, but they could still serve to help confidence.

"The only thing that we draw off it is that we're capable," Britt said. "Other than that, I think it's a thing of the past. We have to worry about the games ahead of us and how we can best execute against the teams that we have to play in conference."

Paige added that the wins don't define the Heels any more than their losses do.

"The wins aren't going to help you win the game Saturday, the losses aren't going to help you lose the game Saturday," Paige said. "You've got to show up to play every day."

Consistency of play happens to be a lesson the Heels are still trying to learn.

Weekend homework: UNC coaching effort?

December, 19, 2013
North Carolina coach Roy Williams scheduled a 5 a.m. Thursday practice immediately following the Tar Heels' 86-83 loss to Texas on Wednesday night. He’s tired of preaching effort to his team, which has had a tendency to elevate its play against ranked teams and go through the motions against the rest.

Davidson normally would command respect, but this season it’s not a team that has proved capable of an upset. The Wildcats will stumble into Chapel Hill on Saturday with a 4-7 record. They lost leading scorer De’Mon Brooks to a knee injury after just five games.

In other words, Williams should have an indication pretty quickly about the Heels' effort levels because the opponent isn’t inspiring. One barometer will be rebounding, as they were outrebounded for the second consecutive game and the third time this season.

[+] EnlargeLeslie McDonald, Isaiah Taylor
Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY SportsLeslie McDonald made his season debut and made four 3-pointers, but was part of the problem at the free throw line.
Sophomore guard Marcus Paige said he hopes it doesn’t take more early-morning practices -- or losses -- to learn their lesson.

“If we didn’t give enough effort in the game, he’s got to drill it in somehow,” Paige said. “I mean, we’ve had a couple of games now where we’re saying the same thing. Effort is what got us. Effort is what got us. Either we have to change it or it is going to be forced to be changed.”

Williams is also looking to force a change from the free throw line. The Heels missed 23 free throws against Texas, which wasn’t even the worst this season. That number is 26, from their 83-80 loss to Belmont.

Paige is shooting 91 percent from the line, while the rest of the team is making just 52 percent. Even senior Leslie McDonald, a career 73 percent shooter, seemed hexed. Although he made 4 of 9 3-pointers, he was just 3-of-8 from the free throw line against the Longhorns.

McDonald played his first game this season after being cleared by the NCAA on Wednesday afternoon. An announcement was forthcoming on junior guard P.J. Hairston, but he is likely out for the season, based on the fact that the school did not submit his reinstatement papers to the NCAA.

The Heels could also be without center Joel James, who was injured just seconds into the game against Texas. The coaching staff will have to make more adjustments if James is out, but Paige said effort should never be one of them.

“You come here to play for North Carolina, you shouldn’t be coached on effort,” Paige said. “Effort is something you bring because you want to be here and you want to be successful. It’s frustrating.”

Davidson has lost to Duke by 34, Virginia by 13 and Clemson by 31. In other words, it's exactly the kind of opponent that the Tar Heels should overpower. Will they? That’s been question North Carolina hasn't answered consistently all season.

Since the start of the season, really, and maybe a little before, Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston have typically been discussed as though they were a package deal.

Understandably so: Both perimeter-oriented UNC shooting guards were watching games from the sideline in casual dress for vague eligibility-related reasons. Both players were practicing but not playing. Save an explanation of NCAA enforcement, "Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston" worked. It was the easiest shorthand.

The partnership is now officially dissolved.

[+] EnlargeP.J. Hairston
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesP.J. Hairston will continue to watch UNC from the sidelines.
On Wednesday, the NCAA declared McDonald reinstated and eligible to play against Texas Wednesday night. It said nothing of Hairston, save that North Carolina had not even submitted a reinstatement request on his behalf. UNC will get the lesser of the two players back in the lineup immediately. Hairston's fate -- and the miniature circus that has accompanied him -- will continue to hang over the Tar Heels.

And even so, it's still great news for North Carolina.

On paper, McDonald's case sounds similar to his teammate's -- caught up, like Hairston, in a swirl of mouth guard brands, Durham holding companies and paper-trail relationships to convicted felon Hadyn "Fats" Thomas. In the end, the NCAA found McDonald accepted "the use of luxury cars, payment of parking tickets, a cellphone and lodging" during the spring and summer of 2013.

But his official penance -- a nine-game suspension and a forfeit (to charity) of about $1,800 -- was no more draconian than the one handed to Oregon's Ben Carter and Dominic Artis for selling their team-provided Nikes just months ago.

McDonald was, in other words, a fairly regular impermissible benefits case. Whatever Hairston's situation amounts to -- whatever it means for his future, or lack thereof, as a UNC Tar Heel -- it is not that.

In the meantime, North Carolina fans can focus on the upside: Their already very good team is immediately going to get better.

The "already very good" might be the biggest surprise of this entire North Carolina ordeal. The Tar Heels were supposed to be crippled by losing Hairston, last season's efficient and versatile leading scorer. Instead, they have knocked off two No. 1 teams (Louisville and Michigan State, the latter at the Breslin Center), handled Kentucky Saturday in Chapel Hill and remained rightfully ranked pretty much all season. They also peppered their upsets with losses to Belmont and UAB. Occasionally, they've been the most thrilling team in the country; they've always been the most confusing.

Little-used sophomore Brice Johnson has become a star; freshman center Kennedy Meeks isn't far behind; and point guard Marcus Paige has been smooth and commanding. The Tar Heels have played excellent defense -- they allow the seventh-fewest points in the country per possession -- they chase down offensive boards and they don't turn the ball over too often.

The one area where UNC has been out and out bad is perimeter shooting: The Tar Heels have made 25 3s all season; Paige accounts for 21 of them. Smartly, UNC shoots the single-lowest rate of 3s to field goal attempts in the country this season -- a whopping 15.9 percent. Credit the Tar Heels for not wasting possessions with shots they can't make, I suppose, but no one wants to be that one-dimensional on offense forever.

McDonald is an immediate panacea. For all of his struggles staying on the floor in what feels like one of those existentially long college basketball careers, McDonald has done one thing repeatedly and with success. That thing is "shooting the basketball." And unlike Hairston, McDonald won't return to a team that has carved its own identity in search of leading-scorer-type touches. He will be a spot-up shooter, a role player, but one whose chief skill is also his team's chief need.

It might not show up against Texas tonight. It might take a little time. But McDonald's return is an unequivocal positive for North Carolina.

Whether it's better or worse or just as good as a joint return with Hairston will have to remain a matter for would and could. He and McDonald are no longer twins in NCAA casual-clothes purgatory, no longer a package deal.

But at this point in UNC's ongoing saga of a season, the Tar Heels will happily take it. One out of two ain't bad.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams refused to acknowledge it.

But he didn't have to.

The signs were all there in Carolina's 82-77 victory against No. 11 Kentucky.

The No. 18 Tar Heels have figured things out. They're no longer a team struggling in new roles because they were stretched outside of their collective comfort zones.

They've settled down now to the point where saying Carolina is playing short-handed even seems like a misnomer. P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald didn't dress for the ninth time this season, and it didn't seem to matter.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige, Dominique Hawkins
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeMarcus Paige has come a long way from his pass-first days as a freshman last season.
"I don't know if we've figured it out like we're clicking like no other right now, but guys do understand their roles better," sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. "We know that we're going to have to play without them until they're ruled eligible or whatever. We've just decided that this is our squad that we're rolling with for the time being."

The Heels have plenty of flaws. Paige is their only consistent 3-point shooter. They're atrocious from the free throw line. They haven't had anyone claim the center spot. But they have learned what their strengths are.

Paige is the face of the successful transitions. As a freshman last season, he was asked only to be a distributor at point guard. With Hairston out, he has moved to shooting guard and has become the Heels' leading scorer.

Early in the season, it wasn't natural for Paige to hunt for his own shot. It's safe to say he has learned now, scoring 21 of his game-high 23 points in the second half and shooting 6-of-8 from the floor.

One of his biggest baskets of the game came while going right at UK center Willie Cauley-Stein, who had five blocked shots. Paige completed a teardrop over the 7-footer's outstretched arm to give Carolina a 70-65 lead with 1 minute, 41 seconds left, which kept it at least a two-possession lead until 7 seconds remained.

"He made two unbelievable shots," Williams said. "That little floater on the baseline -- I'm always kiddingly harping on, I don't like floaters until you show me you can make them, and he's coming pretty doggone close."

Junior James Michael McAdoo is coming close to erasing worries at small forward. His transition from power forward to reserve duty at the 3 had made him pretty ineffective offensively. He had a four-game stretch in which he didn't reach double figures in scoring and shot just 29.2 percent from the floor.

McAdoo played arguably his best game of the season with 20 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. He has put up bigger numbers against lesser competition, but his performance caused Wildcats coach John Calipari to say, "McAdoo made a statement."

"Games like today are huge; it feels a lot better," McAdoo said. "If we would have won and I had zero points, zero rebounds, I'd still be happy, but as a human being I want to be able to contribute to the team."

McAdoo got the ball in positions where he could score. Over and over he'd take passes from the wing and aggressively drive to the basket. That led to fouls and was the reason he tied his season high with 19 free throw attempts.

UK forward James Young said McAdoo's offensive outburst took him a bit by surprise, given his recent struggles.

"In the second half, I played most, if not all, my minutes at the 3," McAdoo said. "To be able to log those minutes, it's definitely huge, not only personally, but for the team moving forward."

[+] EnlargeJ.P. Tokoto
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJ.P. Tokoto has adapted well to playing more minutes and playing more as a shooting guard.
J.P. Tokoto teamed with McAdoo to carry the Heels in the first half, with 11 of his 15 points. Tokoto eased into playing more at shooting guard, which, along with McAdoo at small forward, has allowed the Heels to play a bigger lineup, usually with Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks rounding out the five.

"Guys are accepting the challenge of stepping up and producing when they get the chance," Paige said. "J.P.'s playing a lot more minutes this year as a starter, and he's really producing. It's cool to see our team grow and accept the fact that we're going to have to all step up as a group."

Williams was concerned about how Carolina would perform against the Wildcats after a lackluster practice Friday. It was just the second full practice of the week due to final exams changing players' schedules.

Passes floated to areas with no one waiting to receive them. Man-to-man defensive assignments were missed, and their focus was distant. It was the complete opposite of their practice before the Michigan State game.

Freshman guard Nate Britt attributed it to players coming off the mental fatigue of final exams.

"Coach might have been worried, because he felt like the intensity wasn't there," Britt said. "But I feel like the players, we were fine mentally coming into the game."

Isn't that a sign of a good team?

Williams still says the Tar Heels have a ways to go. But after beating their third ranked team this season -- and shooting a combined 55.1 percent in the second half of those three games -- he has to be flashing a Cheshire grin.

"We're such a young group, and sometimes an immature group," Williams said. "You don't want to get them too fat and happy."

Heels, Cardinals set for matchup

November, 23, 2013

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – There’s no convincing Louisville players that they’re not about to face an elite North Carolina squad at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Most of the third-ranked Cardinals said they had not seen the Tar Heels play this season until they watched the Heels beat Richmond in Saturday's first game of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. Despite Carolina being a shell of the team ranked No. 12 in the preseason, the Cardinals are still showing respect for the name.

Maybe a tad too much respect considering P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald did not make the trip for UNC.

“We know they’re the real deal,” Louisville’s Luke Hancock said. “It’s always going to be Carolina, it’s a top program. Coach [Roy] Williams is going to have them ready to play.”

When the schedule was released, a potential Louisville-Carolina matchup looked to be the first real test for both teams. The reality is it will be more of a barometer for the Tar Heels.

With no word on the status of Hairston and McDonald, whose eligibility is under review by the school and NCAA, Carolina will be playing with its current rotation for the foreseeable future. It’s about to hit a rough five-game stretch that includes a Dec. 4 trip to No. 1 Michigan State and a Dec. 14 home date against No. 4 Kentucky.

“We’re definitely going to try to show up -- well, we will show up -- and compete like we did today,” UNC forward James Michael McAdoo said after Saturday's 82-72 victory over the Spiders. “We’ll start focusing on games like this which are definitely huge games for us going into conference play.”

The Cardinals had the kind of win against Fairfield that coach Rick Pitino can use to grab his team's attention. After winning their first four games by an average of nearly 34 points, Pitino called their 71-57 victory on Saturday their “poorest game of the season.” He even hinted that the Cardinals might have been looking ahead to UNC.

Louisville’s postgame locker room reflected his sentiment. Players sat slumped into their lockers, the entire room void of the laughter and energy usually associated with winning. On the contrary, the Cardinals had the look and feel of a group that had just lost.

“It’s eye-opening for us just to not play as well as we want,” Hancock said. “This type of effort will lose against a lot of teams.”

Forward Montrezl Harrell, who led Louisville with 14 points and 12 rebounds, said the Cardinals played like they didn’t respect Fairfield, and it showed early.

“We should have come out and been prepared to play from the very beginning,” Harrell said. “But we weren’t and got burned for it in the first half. Playing against a team like North Carolina, if we start off like that we can really get burned and not be able to bounce back.”

Pitino even elevated the praise for the Heels, after watching his team shoot just 38 percent and his starting backcourt of Russ Smith and Chris Jones commit a combined eight turnovers.

He said North Carolina's size could give the Cardinals problems, especially with the Heels' offensive rebounding.

“You’re going to see a close game [on Sunday] -- if we don’t get blown out,” Pitino said. “If we play this way, there won’t even be a game.”

Just two games ago, Carolina players were thinking they might not belong on a court with Louisville after struggling to a 62-54 win over Holy Cross. McAdoo joked afterward that if the Heels played that poorly against the Cardinals, all he could do was “hope that Louisville played bad, too.”

The bad news for the Heels is Louisville might have gotten that one out of the way.

“We’ll come back,” Pitino said. “I don’t expect us to have two bad games in a row.”

Heels making unconventional the norm

November, 23, 2013

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Erase for a minute everything you’re used to assuming about a North Carolina basketball team under coach Roy Williams.

The No. 24 Tar Heels are not that team.

This team can’t impose its pace and use the fast break to outrun teams. It can’t merely overpower an opponent on sheer talent. It will have to grind out wins much in the fashion of Saturday's 82-72 victory over Richmond in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

North Carolina (3-1) trailed for much of the first half, and its lead didn’t reach double digits until 1:35 remained in the game.

Because P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald have yet to suit up for the Heels, every game could present something new. Williams agreed it’s probably the least conventional team he’s coached since arriving in Chapel Hill.

“By this time of the year most times, it’s fairly close to a set lineup,” Williams said.

Nothing is set this season.

Not the lineups.

Not even the playing style.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige
AP Photo/Michael DwyerMarcus Paige made a career-high six 3-pointers and played point guard for much of the victory over Richmond.
The Tar Heels were so unpredictable against the Spiders that sophomore Marcus Paige, who made a career-high six 3-pointers and set a career high with 26 points, even played point guard.

Paige is a point guard, but he’s had to play shooting guard with their current roster situation. When he moved back to point for a span against Richmond, forward J.P. Tokoto played shooting guard for the first time this season.

“I played more minutes at point guard in this game than I probably did all year so far,” Paige said. "That was a little different."

Williams generally avoids playing zone defense. But Spiders guard Cedrick Lindsay couldn’t be defended in man-to-man as he scored a career-high 29 points against the Heels.

Lindsay almost single-handedly forced the Heels to unveil a 1-2-2 zone for stretches throughout the game as he was successful driving the lane for baskets. After this game, zone isn’t likely to be a one-time occurrence for Carolina either.

“We have been working more on the zone with this team than any team I’ve ever had,” Williams said. “We gave up some straight drives to the basket, which the zone is supposed to stop that kind of stuff. We’ve got to get a lot better at it, but we’ll play it some more -- there’s no question.”

The game ventured into uncharted territory for senior guard Wade Moody, a walk-on who had played a total of 60 seconds through the first three games. He entered the game with four minutes left in the first half and played three minutes.

“Wade can shoot the ball,” Williams said. “I wanted to give him some time today. You never can tell; he may get more time later on.”

Forward Brice Johnson is making his case for more time -- whether it comes at center or power forward. He came off the bench to record career highs with 24 points and 12 rebounds, his first double-double.

In the past three games, Johnson has played center with James Michael McAdoo at power forward during the deciding stretches. It gives the Heels their best scoring options in the frontcourt while Kennedy Meeks and Joel James are still developing.

“I did it last year, so it’s whatever they need,” Johnson said. “I might now be able to guard the biggest guy, but I’ve added a little bit of weight and a little bit of strength so I can hold my own now.”

What the Tar Heels lack in flash, they make up with toughness. Williams said he wanted to see how they would bounce back from their first loss.

They showed their resilience from the free throw line after missing 26 free throws in the loss to Belmont. Carolina responded against Richmond by shooting 70 percent from the line. They showed it during the game after falling behind by nine in the first half but taking a 36-33 lead into halftime.

“With North Carolina basketball, you’ve got five guys on the court that are all capable of going off for big games,” McAdoo said. “I think that’s really what you just saw today -- them trying to take certain things away and other guys stepping up, which is huge, definitely, as the season goes on.”

Itsy-bitsy issue with Hall of Fame matchup

November, 21, 2013
We have given Richmond fodder for this weekend.

North Carolina has given the Spiders reason to believe.

No one is giving Fairfield a shot against Louisville in the Hall of Fame Classic at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. So pencil in the Cardinals into Sunday's championship game.

But we have anticipated a Louisville-North Carolina matchup for the title. And we are not alone. The organizers planned this accordingly, selling the event as a major showdown between two Hall of Fame coaches and storied programs.

[+] EnlargeChris Mooney
AP Photo/John MinchilloCoach Chris Mooney and the Richmond Spiders could be bracket busters in the Hall of Fame Classic.
And then the Tar Heels started to implode, losing P.J. Hairston over the summer and then again into the fall as the NCAA and the school investigate possible extra benefits. Toss in Leslie McDonald for similar reasons and the Tar Heels are now officially less than whole. It showed when they struggled with Holy Cross and lost at home to a traditionally pesky -- but not as strong as in the past -- Belmont.

Oh, and Richmond beat Belmont earlier this season. Could the Spiders spoil this planned matchup?

Of course.

"I've noticed that," Richmond coach Chris Mooney said of the hype for Louisville-North Carolina any time the Hall of Fame Classic bracket is posted on television or online. "Hopefully we can [upset the plans]. It's a huge opportunity for us. We are pretty good, I think."

Here's why:

The Spiders, two years removed from a Sweet 16 appearance, have the type of point guard they need under Mooney and must have to beat out a player like North Carolina's Marcus Paige. Cedrick Lindsay is averaging 19 points and has nearly as many steals (7) as turnovers (8) in four games.

The Spiders have defended well, save the only loss, to Minnesota. Richmond didn't give up 3s to Belmont (4-of-18); North Carolina did (Belmont was 15-of-37).

The issue for Richmond is its own perimeter shooting.

"We have shot horribly so far [9-for-65 in the first three games, 8-of-26 against zone against Hofstra]," Mooney said. "We are a pretty good shooting team, so those numbers will go up, of course."

They must if the Spiders are to pull off the upset. The frontcourt is still green and James Michael McAdoo has been one of the few strengths for the Tar Heels. This is a wounded UNC team that can't afford to be bruised again so soon after the Belmont loss. UNC sees the need to play Louisville as well, especially with Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., and Kentucky at home within the next few weeks.

The Spiders have an opportunity in an Atlantic 10 that will be led by VCU, UMass and Saint Louis. There is room for a fourth challenger. La Salle has struggled of late. Richmond can seize the spotlight with a win this weekend. The chance is at hand.

UNC passing the boards with ease?

November, 6, 2013
While pondering what North Carolina won’t be as long as P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are out of the lineup (hint, proficient from the perimeter), there’s one area where the Tar Heels should dominate.

On the boards.

Rebounding was most certainly a struggle last season when the Heels were forced to play a four-guard lineup that moved forward James Michael McAdoo to center. Carolina held its lowest rebounding margin (+1.6) of the Roy Williams era and came close to being the first team since 2003-04 to get outrebounded.

It shouldn’t be that close this season.

While UNC awaits word from the NCAA regarding eligibility issues for Hairston and McDonald, Williams will be forced to use a big lineup at times. He could even potentially (however temporary) use a lineup that features J.P. Tokoto at shooting guard and McAdoo at small forward.

Having the team’s two best rebounders paired with a frontcourt that could include forward Brice Johnson, who had the second highest rebounds per minute last season, would be an overpowering matchup for most of their non-conference foes.

Carolina doesn’t face a team that finished on the plus side of rebounding margin until the fifth game of the year when it will play either Fairfield or Louisville in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament.

Consider UNC's 2013-14 non-conference opponents' rebounding margin (& national rank) from last season:

Oakland -0.8 (205)

Holy Cross 0.0 (142)

Belmont -1.5 (T-240)

Richmond -5.8 (331)

Fairfield +0.8 (153) or Louisville +3.6 (66)

UAB +1.7 (120)

Michigan State +7.6 (10)

UNCG -0.9 (209)

Kentucky +4.3 (48)

Texas +0.9 (149)

Davidson +2.0 (114)

Northern Kentucky -5.0 (N/A)

UNCW -1.5 (233)

Rebounding has also been a point of emphasis with Williams in determining who will get to start at center. It’s why Joel James is more focused on his rebounding technique than he is post moves.

“I feel like if you make that contact first, you have a better chance of rebounding the basketball,” James said. “It’s coming slowly, but it’s coming.”

Statistically speaking, the Heels controlled the boards better in 2007-08 than any team during the Williams’ 10 seasons. They enjoyed a rebounding margin advantage of 11 per game. While the 2011-12 team grabbed the most total rebounds, averaging 45.0 per game, their rebounding margin was slightly behind at 10.4 per game.

This team might not quite reach that stratosphere, but all signs indicate rebounding will be once again be a strength this season.