Roy Williams hopes No. 2 'Cuse lights UNC's fuse
During a frustrating season in which North Carolina tumbled out of the polls, the biggest highlights have come against the best competition.
After beating No. 1 Michigan State, No. 3 Louisville and No. 11 Kentucky — in between five losses to unranked opponents, including three demoralizing defeats at the Smith Center — the Tar Heels hope to pull off another upset Saturday at the Carrier Dome in their first-ever conference game against No. 2 Syracuse (noon, ESPN).
After shooting a season-low 30.8 percent against Miami’s zone defense on Wednesday, UNC (10-5, 0-2 ACC) will now attempt to solve Syracuse’s trademark zone with its two top outside shooters slumping.
Leading scorer Marcus Paige had his two lowest point totals of the season in the past two games and shot 5 of 27 from the field. Senior Leslie McDonald — who was supposed to provide another scoring option after he returned from a nine-game suspension for receiving impermissible benefits — hasn’t been much better, going 6 for 25.
UNC coach Roy Williams said the biggest concern he has is finding another scoring option besides Paige, but it doesn’t have to come from the perimeter. He said a key to beating Syracuse’s zone is to be balanced offensively.
“You’ve got to be able to get it inside because if you’re just trying to make outside shots then they just extend it even more,” Williams said. “Instead of shooting from your three-point line you’re shooting from the NBA three-point line and then you’re shooting from somebody else’s three-point line and then you’re shooting from half court.”
Syracuse (15-0, 2-0), which features ACC preseason player of the year C.J. Fair (17.2 points, 5.6 rebounds), is one of five remaining Division I unbeaten teams. The school is expecting more than 31,000 fans for its first marquee home game in its new conference.
UNC is 8-1 all-time at the Carrier Dome, but eight of those games came in the NCAA Tournament. Its only previous game there against Syracuse was a 26-point win in 1983.
Despite being two of the winningest programs of all-time, the schools met just once since 1987 — when Syracuse won the 2009 Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden.
That season wound up being the only time Williams missed the NCAA Tournament since coming to UNC in 2003. But he’s not ready to concede anything at this point, even though he said after Wednesday’s loss to Miami that he felt “mentally probably worse than I’ve ever felt as a head coach right now.”
“You guys know it hasn’t been the most pleasant time period in my life the last seven or eight months, and our kids are feeling a lot of stress,” Williams said. “Things don’t go well around here if you lose a couple of games people think you jump off the top of the building…You just go home and put it behind you and come back the next day and try to do the best that you can at practice.”
Now UNC needs to beat the Orange to avoid its second-ever 0-3 start in the ACC, although the team has shown the ability to thrive as an underdog.
“We have to be completely fired-up, completely enthused, completely motivated (today), or else we have no chance,” Williams said. “I would think they’d better be enthused.”
NOTES — UNC announced that the tipoff time for its home game against N.C. State on Feb. 1 has been moved from 2 p.m. to 1 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN2.