Roy Williams went to extremes in practice to find an adequate replacement for the departed Larry Drew on Monday. Desperate to find a third option at point guard, but also knowing that a short turnaround from Sunday’s 20-point victory over Florida State made that ambition futile, Williams held a team tryout for that open role.
But don’t think the auditions were limited to the guards on the roster. Seven-foot Tyler Zeller and 6-foot-10 John Henson joined Reggie Bullock, Harrison Barnes, Justin Watts and Leslie McDonald in receiving a one-set opportunity, and in a stunning upset, it was Henson that emerged as the “leading candidate” for the job.
For a young team 72 hours removed from Drew’s illogical departure on Friday with a little more than 48 hours remaining before a pivotal showdown with the Blue Devils, humor was likely the only option available in maintaining some levity in a difficult situation.
“We like to have fun,” Williams told reporters on Tuesday. “It’s easier to have fun when you’re winning, but it might be more important to have fun when things aren’t going as well, too.”
The Tar Heels had every reason to halt their recent tear against the Seminoles on Sunday. With two freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup, the unprecedented announcement two days earlier would have been a legitimate excuse to lose focus, if only for one game.
But adversity is nothing new for this squad. Whether it’s Travis and David Wear vanishing overnight last May or their California counterpart replicating their actions nine months later, or even expected senior leader Will Graves being kicked off team in October, this group of Tar Heels elected to come together instead of falling apart.
“We’ve had people leave before with the twins and Will,” Henson said. “We just had to keep trucking and use the mentality that the show must go on. It did and so hopefully we’ll keep going.”
Despite starting the season with a 7-4 record, Williams kept telling anyone who would listen that his team was improving in practice. Once the ACC season rolled around, North Carolina started doing something that the ’09-10 squad never accomplished – winning ugly. Even still, Williams told media members that his team was going to play "great" one day.
That breakthrough has finally occurred. The Tar Heels have won 10 of their last 11 games, while winning their last three by an average of 24 points.
Now UNC returns to the scene of the game that served as the cherry on top of last season’s nightmare. The Tar Heels were throttled 82-50 by the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor last March in a contest that reeked of giving up and cashing it in.
It apparently took that type of performance to shock the Tar Heels back into the reality of the situation. That reality, of course, is that the North Carolina uniform has never won a game by itself.
“We took last year’s [game] and we’ve done a lot with it to be able to use it as motivation and a learning experience,” Zeller said. “We know we can’t go back to that. I think we give more effort, we’re a better team this year and we’re a tighter team this year. It’s just one of those things that we know we can’t go back to that.”
And while North Carolina will lean on three freshmen – Barnes, Bullock and Kendall Marshall – heavily on Wednesday, those rookies have already experienced an intensely-hostile crowd at Illinois earlier this season. Oddly enough, these rookies have never sounded like freshmen and the key to UNC’s recent run is that they’ve stopped playing like freshmen as well.
As Marshall sat amongst a throng of reporters on the Smith Center floor on Tuesday, he was reminded that Tar Heel great and former point guard Ed Cota committed five turnovers in his first trip to Cameron back in ’97.
The freshman point guard quickly interrupted the reporter, saying, “Well, Bobby Frasor was a freshman and they went over there and won.”
Barnes was also peppered with similar questions concerning the difficulty of playing in front of the Cameron Crazies and he softly swatted each one back with a large helping of political correctness, praising the crowd and laughing about the likely chants directed his way. But when the preseason freshman All-American was asked if he would go to sleep on Tuesday dreaming of knocking down a game-winner against Duke, Barnes replied in a way that would make Tyler Hansbrough proud.
“I’m probably going to go to sleep just focusing to make sure we come out with a good start because Duke is a very experienced team and if they get a lead, they know how to milk the clock, they know how to run their sets and they know how to keep a lead,” Barnes said.
It’s that approach, that willingness to focus on the details of the game instead of the bright lights of the moment, that has moved this North Carolina team back into the top-25 and one victory away from sitting atop the ACC standings. If the Tar Heels maintain that directive for 40 minutes on Wednesday night, then a fifth win in six trips to Cameron is a distinct possibility.