Can intensity be learned? Heels hope so

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- During Monday’s practice, North Carolina’s first since its 33-point blowout loss at Florida State, coach Roy Williams made every drill a competition. The slowest, least accurate or worst guy ran. The rest of the players tried to perfect the next task so they wouldn’t have to follow suit.

It led, Williams said, to an intense practice. A focused practice.

The question now is, can the eighth-ranked Tar Heels carry that effort into their next game, Thursday at Virginia Tech?

“You’ve got to be in the right mindset, you’ve got to be able to go in and do what you need to do," senior forward Tyler Zeller said.

UNC is chock full of talented NBA prospects who can run, score and defend. They like each other. They work hard. Zeller recently described them as a happy crew, a team that likes to have fun off the court.

Problem is, this isn’t a group that is naturally intense on it.

"I think they care a great deal, but we don’t have any of those wacko guys flying around," Williams said earlier this month. “Jerod Haase [now a UNC assistant who formerly played for Williams at Kansas] was like a kamikaze. George Karl and Steve Previs, before you were even born, those guys really set the tone for everybody. We don’t have that.”

And it showed Saturday at Florida State. Not only did UNC, coming off a nine-game homestand, start the game flat, but there didn't seem to be any distinguishable leader trying to pick them up -- particularly at the beginning of the second half when they were outscored 22-4.

Zeller, who played the best of the bunch with 14 points and 14 rebounds, said he’s not sure there’s one particular person that everyone looks to when times get tough.

“We all try to keep each other accountable, we all try to bring each other up,’’ he said. “… I don’t think we have one sole leader. It’s something where sometimes we can get a little lax, but we’ve got to keep each other accountable, and make sure we’re doing everything for the team.”

The problem comes when they don’t keep each other accountable, instead throwing up panicked shots and letting a guy (Deividas Dulkys) who had managed only 32 points in his previous nine games combined score 32 in one outing.

The problem comes when there’s no one on the court to re-energize and keep his teammates focused, be it by word or deed.

“Tyler Hansbrough, when he walked out there on the court, was intense," Williams said on his radio show Monday night. “Raymond Felton was one of the best competitors I’ve ever been around. And on game day, Ty Lawson … we never said one word to Ty about any effort, or any hustle or anything, ‘what’s our concentration?’ On game day, he had the intensity. And again, he was better at practice than everybody made it out to be.

“But Tyler Hansbrough, Bobby Frasor, Jackie Manuel, Sean May, those guys -- they had intensity on game night. And this group does not have the intensity that we want.”

Individually, there are candidates who could rise up and re-energize. The team rallied around point guard Kendall Marshall last year when he took over the starting slot and former starter Larry Drew II ultimately transferred midseason. Small forward Harrison Barnes is the go-to guy when it comes to game-winning shots. Zeller is the only senior starter, and shooting guard Dexter Strickland comes the closest to that “kamikaze” label, what with the way he usually frustrates foes on defense.

Williams, meanwhile, says he believes better intensity can be fostered via more competitive practices, which is why he’s been pushing his players hard -- and pushing them to push each other hard -- this week.

It's also why there was someone running after each drill Monday.

“I hope I’ve never recruited kids that won’t be ticked off when they lose and play poorly," Williams said. “I’m extremely ticked off, and I didn’t even get to play."

Thursday, he added, will be an important test to see how UNC reacts to its recent drubbing -- to see if it can start the game focused and stay energized on the road against a Virginia Tech team that has started the ACC season a surprising 0-3.

"They’ll be desperate just like I hope we’re desperate, and I don’t mind using that terminology," Williams said. "I just want us to play our tails off and see what happens."

Can intensity be learned? The Tar Heels hope so.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.