The jury is not out on the 2010-11 Tar Heels. Their body of work is strong - stronger than the ’05-06 squad, a team with many similarities and a few stark differences, which may prove to be in North Carolina’s favor as the postseason begins.
“You’ve just got to have that same focus we’ve had through the season,” Dexter Strickland said. “Like I keep saying, we can’t slack off. You know we’ve got more games to play, more important games to play, and I think going into Greensboro we should all have our focus to where we’re going to continue to play as we’re playing, if not better.”
Despite a bumpy start to a season that started with a high preseason ranking, was followed by Larry Drew jumping ship and then a season-ending knee surgery for Reggie Bullock, No. 6 North Carolina (24-6, 14-2 ACC) found a way to overcome all its adversity and win the ACC regular season championship by beating Duke, 81-67, last Saturday.
Williams, who was announced on Tuesday as the ACC’s Coach of the Year, is pleased, but not satisfied.
“You have short term goals and long term goals, and longer term goals,” Williams said. “But my goal has never been to quit when the regular season’s over with even though the goal every year I coached has been to win the regular season championship, because I think that’s extremely difficult to do, and it’s something I’m very proud of.”
His floor leader, freshman Kendall Marshall, has embraced that same attitude.
“He [Williams] told us that we still have goals we want to accomplish,” Marshall said. “You know we have one championship. That’s not enough. You can never be satisfied if you want to be great.”
The ’05-06 Tar Heels had to cope with the departure of their top seven scorers from the previous 2005 national championship team, four of whom were lottery picks in the NBA Draft.
The cupboard was nearly bare, or so the experts thought. Like this season, that UNC squad was lean on depth and experience, and had to rely on freshmen with an unlikely rag-tag bunch of walk-ons converted into scholarship players in David Noel and Wes Miller, an unheralded instate recruit in junior Reyshawn Terry and seldom-used reserves in Byron Sanders and Quentin Thomas.
Five years later the cupboard is not as bare, but North Carolina’s roster has dwindled down to eight scholarship players. No one from last season’s season-opening starting lineup is on the team. Since winning the national championship in 2009, 13 players have left the program.
After starting this season 7-4, North Carolina has won 17 of its last 19 games, including its victory over Duke on Saturday. Five seasons ago, the Tar Heels also struggled early on, falling to 11-5 after losing three out of four games.
Strong leadership from Noel and the emergence of freshman Tyler Hansbrough as the team’s go-to-guy kept UNC afloat. The tide turned on Jan. 28 when North Carolina routed Arizona, 86-69. After defeating the Wildcats, the Tar Heels won nine of their last 10 regular season games, giving them reason to feel good.
“We were a pretty confident bunch beforehand,” Williams said after UNC beat No. 1 Duke 83-76 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the 2006 regular season finale. “I am confident and I hope it isn’t cockiness but I told them that I thought we were the only team in the country that could come in here and win this game.”
The next week Boston College ousted North Carolina, 85-82, in the ACC Tournament semifinal round.
“This team is very focused and has done an excellent job of playing very close to its potential,” Williams said after the loss to the Eagles. “I will expect and I will demand that we continue to do so the rest of our season.”
The Tar Heels started the 2006 NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed, edging No. 14 seed Murray State 69-65 in the first round before they were shocked by No. 11 seed George Mason, 65-60, in the second round.
That North Carolina team (23-8, 12-4 ACC) had defied expectations all season long, but the end was disappointing. It was clear the Tar Heels had peaked at their win over Duke.
“I don’t think my guys are going to say, ‘Gosh what a great year we’ve had, and let’s just go through the motions,’” Williams said on Tuesday. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think that they’re still hungry, and they see themselves getting better. When you see yourself getting better that gives you more confidence, and you get greedy, you want more.”
The coach is now saying the right things, and his players have bought in to his preaching.
“[Winning the] ACC championship is a good feeling, but I think a national championship would be better,” Strickland said.
Second-team All-ACC and ACC Rookie of the Year Harrison Barnes, second-team All-ACC and ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson and second-team All-ACC forward Tyler Zeller take up most of the attention, but the insertion of Marshall, a third-team All-ACC player, at point guard has taken the Tar Heels to new heights.
Since Marshall took the reins North Carolina is 12-1 and is the favorite to win the ACC Tournament.
When asked how he could make sure that his team didn’t peak against Duke, Williams replied, “I can’t make sure, but we can go to work every day and try to do the best, and I told them I was still hungry and they should be hungry.”
The current group of Tar Heels would like nothing more than to break the mold and provide a stark contrast to the 05-’06 squad now that March Madness has arrived.