Tar Heels aim to handle UNCW like they care

Dec. 30, 2013 @ 11:29 PM

Today’s home game against 6-8 UNC Wilmington (5 p.m., ESPNU) should give No. 19 North Carolina one more easy game before conference play begins.

Then again, that’s no sure thing with the Tar Heels (9-3), who have experienced some unexpected struggles against lower-level competition.

Having already beaten No. 3 Louisville, No. 1 Michigan State and No. 11 Kentucky, the Tar Heels needed overtime to beat 4-9 Davidson and struggled against 4-8 Northern Kentucky in their last two games, which were both at the Smith Center.

UNC actually raced out to a 14-2 lead Friday against NKU, but failed to keep up its intensity and concentration level and allowed the Norse to get back within five at halftime.

“At one point I was like, ‘This might be a game I play less than 30 minutes,’” said guard Marcus Paige, who is second in the ACC in minutes per game (35.7). “That can’t happen – I’m one of the leaders and I have that mindset, so I’m imagining all my teammates kind of had that mindset as well.

“Teams want to beat us. They want to play their best against us, and you can’t have those lulls where you don’t have effort. Get beat to a box out for a tip dunk, just don’t get a loose ball – that can’t happen. We only have one more non-conference game. In our league, teams expose that. It’s not going to end well.”

UNC coach Roy Williams had already scheduled a 5 a.m. practice eight hours after a loss to Texas because he was unhappy with his team’s effort. Against NKU, Williams wanted to have his team run sprints at halftime, but his assistants talked him out of it. Still, he started the second half with Paige and four reserves – Isaiah Hicks, Jackson Simmons, Luke Davis and Desmond Hubert.

“It’s got to mean something to you,” Williams said. “If you really care and you want to be a big-time team, then you don’t make those same mistakes now that we were making (when practices started). I would just say that I wanted guys in there that would compete and make me feel like they cared more.”

The 6-1 Paige led the Tar Heels with nine rebounds against NKU, a further indictment of the team’s uneven play in the post.

Brice Johnson has started the past two games at center for Joel James, who is out again tonight with a sprained MCL. Johnson has recorded 11 points, nine rebounds and five turnovers in those two games, and he fouled out in 18 minutes against Davidson.

“(Brice) is going to be a really good player,” Williams said. “He just needs to get the mojo going.”

UNCW, which is on a three-game slide after losses to Manhattan, Old Dominion and UNC Asheville, has already been blown out by ranked teams Iowa (82-39) and Iowa State (95-62). For a similar result today, the Tar Heels know they can’t keep playing down to the level of their competition.

“We need to prepare like it’s a big-time game,” Simmons said. “Every game should be a big-time game, and we have to understand that. We have to come out and treat everyone like a big-time opponent. A lot of it is just a mindset and caring. Coach talked at halftime (against NKU), he just wanted us to care, and some of our actions didn’t reflect caring.”

NOTES – UNCW is coached by Buzz Peterson, a college roommate of Michael Jordan who averaged 4.3 points in 119 career games and was a member of the 1982 national-title team. Peterson is one of eight former Tar Heels who now lead Division I programs. … In celebration of only its third New Year’s Eve home game in 50 years, the team will be wearing blue jerseys in the Smith Center for just the second time as part of a “Happy Blue Year” promotion. UNC last wore blue at home for a game against Connecticut in 1990. UNCW will wear white. …With a win today, UNC will join Kentucky and Kansas as the only schools with at least 2,100 victories.