UNC G at UNC: Tar Heels look to build on No. 1 MSU upset
How did North Carolina beat both the defending national champions and the No. 1 team in the country, while also losing two games against teams from lower-echelon conferences — all in a 17-day span?
Don’t ask their coach. After the Tar Heels knocked off top-ranked Michigan State Wednesday, Williams opened his press conference by saying: “We can make this short if you want to, because I’ll just say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know and I don’t know.’”
When UNC last played in the Smith Center, poor defense and 26 missed free throws led to an 83-80 loss to Belmont, the team’s first non-conference home defeat since 2005. But the Tar Heels return to face UNC Greensboro tonight (7 p.m., ESPNU) after beating two top 5 opponents for the first time since the 2000-01 season.
The Tar Heels (5-2) topped then-No. 3 Louisville and never trailed in a 14-point win at Michigan State that gave UNC its first win over a No. 1 team since 2006. They also were outhustled in a loss at Alabama-Birmingham that sent them tumbling out of the rankings.
Williams said that some of the inconsistency could be explained by the team’s youth. With junior P.J. Hairston and senior Leslie McDonald still unavailable because of issues with their eligibility, junior James Michael McAdoo is the only upperclassmen who is averaging at least one point per game.
“You can’t tell in college basketball what’s going to happen,” Williams said Wednesday. “I looked out there today at one time and I had three freshman, a sophomore and a junior on the court, and we don’t have a senior traveling with us. You understand kids are going to do some wacko things and you hope you do enough good ones on game night.”
But sophomore J.P. Tokoto thought the biggest issue was the team’s effort.
“If you look at tape of the two losses, you can totally tell that the level of intensity is not where it should be and not where it could be,” Tokoto said. “If you look at the Louisville game, our level of intensity was sky high. The way we got up and down, no one was jogging; everyone was sprinting to their spots.”
Tokoto, who Williams has said has the potential to be one of the best offensive rebounders he’s ever coached, had a career-high 10 rebounds (five offensive) on Wednesday as the Tar Heels outrebounded the Spartans 49-38.
“Honestly, thinking about it I know I got a few offensive rebounds, a couple defensive rebounds, but when I heard 10 I was like, ‘Oh, gosh,’” Tokoto said. “I guess I just kind of lost myself in the game. (Coach) always says that — just lose yourself in the game and let things come to you, don’t force anything.”
Tokoto’s help on the boards — and his 28 points on 13 of 21 shooting over the past two games — have taken some of the pressure off Marcus Paige, who is still fourth in the ACC in scoring (19.7 points per game) but is just 10 of 30 from the field in the last week.
Unlike against Louisville, when Paige scored 32 points, the Tar Heels didn’t need a career game from their sophomore guard to beat a top opponent on Wednesday. Freshman Nate Britt had career highs of 13 points and five rebounds, while Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson combined for 29 points off the bench.
“It wasn’t just the Marcus Paige show,” Williams said.
The Tar Heels could even survive another off night from forward James Michael McAdoo, who is averaging eight points and 3.5 rebounds over the past four games.
Tokoto said having a short-term memory has helped the team bounce back from poor performances. Now the team will need to shake off the euphoria from its win at East Lansing and prepare for its first-ever meeting with UNG Greensboro (4-4), which is coming off a 21-point loss to Presbyterian on Tuesday.
The Spartans are coached by former Tar Heel Wes Miller, who was a part of Williams’ first national title team in 2005 and was a team captain in 2006-07. Miller’s staff includes two other former UNC players — assistant coach Jackie Manuel and director of operations J.B. Tanner.
NOTES — Former Roxboro Person star Tyrone Outlaw Jr. has seen starter’s minutes despite coming off the bench for UNC G. The 6-6, 205-pound wing averages the fifth most minutes played (20.4) on the roster and is the Spartans’ No. 6 scorer at 8.4 points per game. He also averages 3.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.5 blocks. He has turned the ball over only four times in eight games.