For Desmond Hubert, his strong performance at Florida State actually began in the minutes following Carolina's home loss to Miami.
In that game, Hubert had some struggles in 12 minutes, grabbing a pair of rebounds, blocking a shot, sinking a free throw, and going 0-for-1 from the field. Carolina lost, 68-59, and when the game was over, Hubert responded in an unusual fashion: he went to the weight room.
He wasn't frustrated because of the things fans might complain about--the lack of field goals, or really anything at all to do with offense.
"I felt like I let our team down defensively," Hubert said. "I wanted to lift right after the game with Jonas, and it was an intense lift. He told me to make sure I brought that intensity to everything that I do."
That's not second nature for Hubert, whose laid-back personality makes him an easy fit in the Carolina locker room, but sometimes too reticent on the court. He's started 11 games for the Tar Heels, including the last five in a row, a situation that sometimes confounds Carolina fans who might prefer a more potent offensive threat in that fifth starter's spot.
Quietly, however, Hubert has played an important role in UNC's two biggest wins in that five-game stretch. He contributed a solid 20 minutes against UNLV, when he had a tone-setting early block against the talented Anthony Bennett, plus three rebounds and three points. Then, at Florida State, he played just 12 minutes, but scored four points and grabbed a rebound. Both his baskets in Tallahassee came when he aggressively attacked the rim, dunking twice on one of the top-10 shot blockers in the ACC, Okaro White.
"His personality doesn't always allow us to see when he's about to get mad," says Dexter Strickland. "When he makes plays like he did at FSU, it gets him pumped up, and now that he has more confidence, those kinds of plays are happening more often for him."
Therein lies the key for Hubert's role on the 2013 Tar Heels. He's not supposed to score more than P.J. Hairston. No one expects him to develop a better shooting touch than Brice Johnson. He's not supposed to rebound more than James Michael McAdoo.
But as he's developed a better idea of what he is supposed to do, his contributions have become more consistent. He's had regular post-practice chats with Roy Williams and Steve Robinson to identify his strengths, and he's starting to demonstrate them more frequently.
"I've talked to Coach a lot, and that has helped me know what my job is on the court," Hubert says. "For me, it starts on defense, and everything grows from there."
His role starts on defense because at this point in the season, he's one of Carolina's best post defenders, and he adds an element to the Tar Heel defense that's not otherwise present. That will be important in tomorrow's noon tipoff against Maryland, a team that ranks second in the conference in field goal percentage and features center Alex Len, a player who gave the Tar Heels fits last year even when the lineup included Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
"I think a lot of fans don't see how much Desmond contributes to our team," Strickland says. "When he's in the game, if my guy beats me off the dribble, I know he's going to be back there to block it. He has stepped his game up a lot on defense. His improvement on offense will come, because he works hard. I don't think a lot of people on the outside see the hard work he puts in."
They can see the numbers, though. After shooting 5-for-11 in the first 11 games of the season, Hubert is 5-for-7 from the field over Carolina's last five games.. And while it's true that four of those five field goals are dunks, it's also true that he's getting dunk opportunities because he's attacking the rim more aggressively.
The paradox of Hubert's season is that he's flashed the most aggression against the teams--UNLV and FSu, most notably--that also feature that same gritty type of approach. Now the challenge is for him to consistently do it on his own initiative, without feeling challenged to match the intensity of the opponent.
Of course, aggression occasionally comes with a price. Hubert will play tomorrow's game against the Terps wearing a mouth guard, just as he did against Florida State. It's the product of a wayward Jackson Simmons elbow in practice that loosened a couple of Hubert's front teeth.
The dental work hasn't dimmed his ever-present smile, however. It's just that now, he's choosing to use that grin less frequently on the court.
"I look at Dexter and I see someone who I feel like always has that swagger on the court," Hubert says. "I want to get that, and I feel like beginning with the UNLV game, I'm starting to get there."