Heels clicking at right time

Heels clicking at right time

March 8th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

Roy Williams

Roy Williams

On the shocking mid-January night that North Carolina lost by 20 points to Georgia Tech earlier this winter, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams groaned, "I've got to become a better coach really quickly."

Said Williams six weeks later, the Baby Blues having just defeated defending national champion Duke 81-67 this past Saturday night: "One of my buddies just said that I've gotten a lot smarter over the past couple of weeks. I don't know about that, but my team's gotten a lot better."

The Tar Heels have gotten so much better that they've won seven straight games and 12 of their last 13 heading into this weekend's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament as the No. 1 seed.

They've come so far from a 5-3 start that they now stand 24-6 overall and are ranked sixth in the Associated Press poll.

Although Williams rotates no more than eight players - starting two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior - there is even talk among experts and ESPN's bracketologists that the Tar Heels could wind up with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament if they win the ACC tourney.

Or as freshman point guard Kendall Marshall said after distributing 11 assists against the Blue Devils: "Our potential is through the roof."

Williams has winced more than once at the word "potential" the past 15 months. After winning his second national title since 2005 in 2009, he watched his team miss the NCAA tourney altogether last spring, then fall to Dayton in the title game of the National Invitation Tournament.

"And that's not where Roy Williams wants to be in March," the coach said during that run.

Yet after barely beating both Virginia and Virginia Tech to open the ACC season, then being blown out at Tech, the NIT is exactly where some feared the Tar Heels might again be headed for spring break.

But it was right about then that Smith began to trust his high-octane offense to freshman point guard Kendall Marshall, a move that soon led moody point guard Larry Drew II to abruptly quit the team.

It was also in late January that freshman forward Harrison Barnes - the national prep player of the year in many circles last year - began to assert himself.

Coupled with 7-foot junior center Tyler Zeller and 6-10 sophomore forward John Henson, that quartet has sparked the kind of late-season surge that often leads to Final Four runs occasionally to national championships.

"I've watched them all year, and they've made tremendous improvement," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said after his Seminoles fell by 20 to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. "They're just so long and athletic inside. And Marshall and Barnes are definitely special talents."

While Barnes has led the Tar Heels in scoring 10 times - and hit nerveless game-winners at both Miami and Florida State - it is Marshall who's made UNC a top 10 team again.

"From the shoulders up, it's hard to imagine that anybody can think [basketball] better than he can," Williams said after the Duke win. "He's the kind of point guard who makes people better because he gets them the ball where they can shoot and score."

What the Heels have done better than anyone is rebound when they or their opponents fail to score. They lead the NCAA in rebounding with nearly 43 a game. Coupled with the rapid maturity of Barnes and Marshall, UNC is a near-certain No. 2 seed come Sunday's NCAA Selection Show, and a possible No. 1 if it can win the ACC tourney.

"It's been a marvelous run," Williams said. "But I told them that I'm still hungry and want a little more."

With a little luck, the Tar Heels just might give their Hall of Fame coach a lot more. They might give him his third national title in seven years.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.