The Tar Heels, like every other team across the country, are out of mulligans. Standing in a random side room in the Greensboro Coliseum on Sunday, Reggie Bullock talked about the reasons UNC lost to Miami in the ACC Tournament championship game, but kept coming back to the notion that his team would work on things in practice and improve this week.
That option is no longer available. Roy Williams’s message to his team stressed that difficult aspect of the NCAA Tournament.
“Guys, if you want to come back here and practice at this facility again, then you’ve got to win.”
North Carolina could win an improbable six games over the next three weeks. Only 40 minutes, however, are guaranteed.
“It’s not just about building your program now, it’s win or go home,” Williams said on his radio program on Monday night. “There’s a little more of a sense of urgency and understanding from the players, but they never understand until they’re upperclassmen the quickness, the suddenness with which your season can be over with.”
Senior guard Dexter Strickland has run headfirst into a season-ending loss in each of his first three years in Chapel Hill, although he watched from the sidelines last March in St. Louis as what once was thought to be UNC’s Final Four destiny ended one game short in the Elite Eight.
“It’s quick, man,” Strickland said on Tuesday afternoon. ”If you lose, you go home. It’s that quick. You just have to got out there and give it your all. You don’t realize it until you’re actually playing and you’re down. You say to yourself, ‘this could be my last game of the season.’ That thought gets you to play even harder.”
It’s Strickland’s responsibility this week to highlight the need for maximum effort to his younger teammates. The Tar Heels have struggled throughout the season with lapses in energy and intensity, and while that issue has mostly been resolved, there’s no room for slippage in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’d tell them just to go down there and just try to play at your full potential,” Strickland said when asked about potential advice to his teammates. “Just give it your all. Lose yourself out there on the floor because it might be your last game.”
As Williams reiterated: “Do you want to practice one more time? Well, then, you’ve got to win.”
If there’s a positive to build on, it’s UNC’s play in its loss to Miami on Sunday. The Tar Heels likely delivered their best performance of the season through the opening 35 minutes of the ACC Tournament’s title game.
“Of course we were disappointed we lost the game, but we weren’t disappointed with our effort,” P.J. Hairston said.
North Carolina has to roll that consistency in effort over to the national tournament starting on Friday, win or lose. The 2012-13 season will come to a close sometime over the next three weeks. It’s up to the Tar Heels if regret meets them at the end.