Tar Heels welcome Pirates
At the end of a 15-minute news conference Thursday, North Carolina coach Roy Williams stayed at his seat even after reporters had exhausted their list of questions.
“You know we do play East Carolina Saturday,” Williams said. “Does anyone have any questions (about that)?”
ECU may be the next team on the schedule, but whether Williams likes it or not, all the interest still is squarely on No. 21 UNC, which hosts the Pirates today at the Smith Center (noon, ESPNU).
The Tar Heels (7-2) still are adjusting to losing their four stars from the 2011-12 season. The center position is up for grabs among sophomore defensive specialist Desmond Hubert and two developing freshmen, Joel James and Brice Johnson, and freshman point guard Marcus Paige hasn’t met Williams’ high expectations.
As a result, the team has fallen behind by almost 30 points to each of the two best teams on the schedule, Butler and No. 1 Indiana, and the Tar Heels still are reliant on perimeter shooting.
“I wanted Joel and Brice and those guys to come along faster, and I’d still like it if we had a little better balance,” Williams said.
Johnson has reached double figures in four straight games, but he still is getting used to man-to-man defense after playing zone in high school and must work on maintaining his intensity level. Williams said he showed Johnson one play from the defensive end in the Indiana game, and the freshman said he was embarrassed to watch himself on tape.
“He’s not getting better as fast as I want him to and I’m sure not as fast as he wants to,” Williams said. “But he’s trying to get better, and I’ll take that.”
Williams said the same thing about Paige, who has 30 assists to 23 turnovers and is shooting 34.5 percent. He also isn’t being aggressive enough — the freshman has just one free throw attempt in 194 minutes.
“I think that he’s not playing the way he wants to play or the way he thought he was going to play,” Williams said. “But I think that happens to every freshman.”
While the team isn’t expected to play a tournament-level opponent until Dec. 29 — the next two games after ECU are at Texas on Wednesday at home against McNeese State next Saturday — the upcoming schedule should provide more opportunities for the freshmen to improve.
It’s one thing to do it in practice, and another to do it in front of 20,000 people, no matter who the opponent is.
“Everybody wants you to play the Oklahoma City Thunder and then the Celtics and then the Lakers,” Williams said. “But you can’t, because you’ve got to have your kids get some confidence.”
Rare meeting with ECU
UNC has only played ECU twice, though never in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels beat the Pirates in the first round of the 1993 NCAA Tournament in Winston-Salem, and in Greenville in 1953.
Today’s game was scheduled because the Pirates are coached by Jeff Lebo, who played at UNC from 1985-89 and earned second-team All-ACC and Academic All-ACC honors as a junior.
Lebo has the second-best 3-point percentage in school history (42.8), behind current assistant coach Hubert Davis, and is fourth in career free throw percentage (83.9). He coached against UNC once before, when the Tar Heels defeated Tennessee Tech by 26 in the 1999-2000 season.
Williams said it just took a 15-minute conversation to make the game happen.
“It was really easy,” Williams said. “Jeff called, and so we talked about it and I said OK.”
Still, Lebo’s influence only went so far — ECU was interested in a game in Greenville, but Williams wasn’t.
“My deal is that we’ll play, but I’m not going to go play on your court because we can’t do that for everybody unless you’re opening up a building or something,” Williams said.
The Tar Heels traveled to UNC Asheville when the Bulldogs opened their new arena this past season.