UNC reflects, looks to build on late 12-of-13 winning streak

Mar. 13, 2014 @ 07:04 PM

Despite winning 12 of their last 13 games, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said his players shouldn’t be satisfied yet.

“I’m pretty straightforward with them,” Williams said. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, we turned it around, but let’s not look back and say the highlight of our season was a two-, three-, four-week period in January and February.’”

No. 4 UNC (23-8) will start its ACC Tournament run today against No. 5 Pittsburgh (24-8) at the Greensboro Coliseum (2:30 p.m., WRAL/ESPN). The Tar Heels beat the Panthers 75-71 at the Smith Center on Feb. 15 as part of the 12-game winning streak that lifted them from the bottom of the ACC to the upper tier.

UNC used a different formula than usual to clinch a top-four seed after a 1-4 start in conference play. The Tar Heels are playing at a slower tempo than at any time in Williams’ 11 seasons, according to college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy. UNC’s offensive efficiency ranking of 51st in Division I is also the second-worst under Williams, trailing only the NIT-bound team of 2010.

“I do feel like it’s a different identity because — I’ll use my word — I think we’re slow,” Williams said. “We’re working extremely hard defensively to try to help us because we’re not as offensively gifted as we have been in the past. When you shoot the ball in the hole, everything is just easier. … But we don’t really have that firepower right now, so we have to be better defensively.”

First-team all-ACC sophomore Marcus Paige was named the league’s most improved player after averaging 17.1 points, and junior James Michael McAdoo (14.2 points) has also been a steady option in the post.

But playing without P.J. Hairston, last year’s leading scorer, UNC doesn’t have many options on the perimeter and has struggled to score against zone defenses — especially when opponents also slow it down when they have the ball, which doesn’t allow the Tar Heels to get easy transition points.

Besides non-competitive losses at top seeds Virginia (76-61) and Syracuse (57-45), UNC lost a home game to Miami (63-57) and earlier this month barely beat zone-heavy teams Virginia Tech (60-56) and Notre Dame (63-61).

As a result, the Tar Heels have relied on their defense more than usual. According to Pomeroy, their defensive efficiency ranks 21st in the country, marking the fourth time under Williams that UNC’s defense is more highly-ranked than its offense.

“We haven’t had as many offensive weapons as we’ve had last year,” sophomore J.P. Tokoto said. “We still have guys who can put the ball in the basket. We lost firepower but we gained some defensive intensity. … We pride ourselves on getting stops and letting our defense lead to our offense.”

That defensive effort disappeared Saturday against the Blue Devils when UNC allowed a season-high 93 points. Tokoto, who was named to the all-ACC defensive team by both the coaches and the media, said that he didn’t move his feet quickly enough against Duke and got beat off the dribble too many times.

He said he would have a different mentality today against Pittsburgh, who will be playing on consecutive days after beating Wake Forest Thursday.

“They’re probably banged up, a little fatigued,” Tokoto said. “The mentality is to attack them before they attack us, especially on the defensive end.”

NOTES — UNC has two ACC Tournament titles under Williams, winning back-to-back in 2007-08. The Tar Heels have lost in the final in each of the past three seasons. … UNC is the No. 4 seed for only the second time since 1990. The Tar Heels went 1-1 as the fourth seed in 2000. … The UNC-Pittsburgh winner will face either No. 1 Virginia or No. 9 Florida State in the semifinals Saturday at 1 p.m. The championship game is Sunday at 1 p.m.

WATCH ONLINE — UNC and Duke beat writers Harold Gutmann and Steve Wiseman take a look at the Tar Heels' and Blue Devils' chances of winning the ACC Tournament in the latest episode of Our Game: Duke/UNC. Catch the weekly webcast online at www.heraldsun.com/sports/gameday.