“Playing games is a lot better than practicing,” junior wing Danny Green said during Tuesday’s press conference. “So whenever we get the opportunity to play a game to see how good we really are, we would like to do that instead of in practice playing against each other every day.”
This opening test for top-ranked North Carolina would qualify as an upset alert if this were March rather than November. The Wildcats return every member from their 29-5 NCAA team last season, including sophomore sensation Stephen Curry (21.5 points per game).
“Curry is a youngster who, like his daddy, can shoot the dickens out of it,” Williams said. “He doesn’t need a lot of room to get it off, but also can put the ball on the floor. You look at that frame he has and you say, ‘Boy, he’s a little guy,’ but unless my information is wrong, he averaged 4.6 rebounds a game last year. So he’s a guy that’s really a more complete basketball player than most people make him out to be.”
In most normal college basketball seasons, this is the kind of game that players and fans could potentially overlook. That’s not the case this year, thanks to Gardner-Webb’s 84-68 blowout victory at Kentucky and UNC-Greensboro’s 83-74 upset of Georgia Tech.
“I think the parity is something that people either like to think that it’s not there or refuse to admit that it is there, but it is, especially if you get a veteran team against an extremely talented, inexperienced team,” Williams said.
The early season shockers have made it easier for the coaching staff to emphasize the true threat that the Wildcats are to the Heels’ No. 1 ranking. Davidson’s final game of the 2006-07 season was a hard-fought 82-70 loss to Maryland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I think that has woken a lot of people up – not just us, but everybody,” Green said. “Coach knows that Davidson is a team that can upset a lot of people and shock and surprise us, so we’re going to go in being fully prepared and not be surprised by anything… If we play our best basketball, we feel like nobody can touch us.”
For the first time in Williams’ 20-year coaching career, he does not have a scholarship player new to his program, and that allowed the coaching staff to hit the ground running full speed when practice started a little over four weeks ago.
“I think they’ve been a good practice team in that they have picked up things quickly that we’ve thrown at them,” Williams said. “We haven’t thrown a lot of new things at them. We’re still doing some things that I did 10 or 15 years ago, so a lot of the things are repetition for what they did last year... They’ve learned well. It’s not habit yet – when defensive principles become second nature for them, I think that’s always the best situation, but we’re not at that stage yet.”
Most of the preseason media coverage centered on the battle to replace the departed Brandan Wright alongside Preseason All-America Tyler Hansbrough. But the highly-anticipated grudge match between sophomore forwards Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson has not lived up to its billing, at least not yet.
“I don’t know that it will ever work itself out and I don’t mind,” Williams said. “We had a guy that was the second player picked in the NBA Draft that never started a game, so I don’t worry about that. I guarantee you that when I go to bed at night, that’s the last frickin’ thing I’m thinking about. And it better be the last thing they’re worried about, too.”
And while junior wing Marcus Ginyard is a known quantity as a defensive specialist, junior guard Bobby Frasor is finally healthy and has made his presence felt on the defensive side of the floor, as well – a revelation that will serve the Tar Heels in trying to defend Curry on Wednesday night.
“Defensively, he’s like David Noel,” Williams said of Frasor's defensive understanding and communication. “We’ve got nobody on our club that’s as aware of the big picture as much as he is. We’ve got nobody on our club that communicates as well as he does, and we’ve got nobody on our club that’s got the sense of urgency on the defensive end of the floor as he does. He is phenomenal.”
The fifth-year head coach has stressed defense and limiting mental mistakes in his program’s two exhibition victories, and those qualities will be essential in the Tar Heels prevailing in their season opener at the Charlotte Bobcats Arena against the 2006-07 Southern Conference champions.