Litmus Test Ahead

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In most any other season, No. 14 North Carolina's road trip to top-ranked Indiana would provide a gauge as to where the Tar Heels currently stand. On Tuesday, however, UNC will learn more about its potential.

There was nothing to emerge from North Carolina's press conference on Monday to suggest that the Tar Heels are anywhere close to where Roy Williams wants them to be.

The 10th-year UNC head coach talked about his team's lack of mental toughness when it came to knocking down shots early against Long Beach State. He criticized his team's lack of urgency in falling behind by 29 points to Butler on Tuesday, as well as its lack of physical toughness in the loss to the Bulldogs.

"I was surprised in the first 28 minutes against Butler," Williams said. "I was really surprised. As a coach, you don't like to be surprised, particularly in a negative way like that."

Dexter Strickland attributed those initial 28 minutes to a lack of focus due to underestimating unranked Butler. While the senior guard felt UNC's youthful roster did a better job of taking Chaminade seriously on Wednesday, Williams's focus was not on undermanned Mississippi State or the Division II Silverswords coming out of Maui. His focus was on his team's physicality, or lack thereof, in its lone loss on the season

"We'd set a screen and they'd run through it," Williams said. "They'd set a screen and we'd stop and start calling for mama…

"We just weren't physical enough. We'd put a body on them, and they'd knock us out of the way, and not illegally. It was just that they wanted the basketball more than we did. And then they would box us out and we would stop. They would make an extra pass and we would stand there. We would make an extra pass, and they would make the extra move to get there. It was more of a physical toughness."

So, according to standard UNC protocol, Williams took it upon himself to increase the level of intensity, urgency and toughness during practice on Saturday and Sunday.

"It's been rough," Strickland said. "We ran so much yesterday. But I look at it as, not punishment, but something to make us better. I think we ran about eight 33s yesterday, and I think that was good for us because I think we were out of shape a little bit. So we definitely got in shape yesterday."

Strickland doesn't believe his head coach was disciplining the team with the intense practices, but rather helping prepare them for the test that awaits in Bloomington.

Regardless of North Carolina's national ranking, the learning curve is the only measure that currently matters. The Tar Heels must first navigate the primary length of that arc before worrying about the number in front of their school's name.

Strickland has traversed that curve both as a player and within the scope of a team. His knowledge has been put to use thus far to calm the minds of freshman class and other inexperienced teammates.

"I talk to those guys all of the time," Strickland said. "I talk to Joel [James] a lot because he gets down a lot on himself if he messes up. Or if he screws up a play, he gets down on himself.

"And I just told him, ‘I've been on your level before as far as being a freshman. You're going to mess up. You're a freshman; people expect you to. So when you do, don't get down on yourself because it just makes your play even worse. Just learn from your mistakes, go out and practice every day, listen to coach and know that we're here to help you.'"

As good as the Hoosiers may be, the Tar Heels' most difficult challenge on Tuesday may be in elevating their play to meet their head coach's demands for a full 40 minutes.

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