by Megan Walsh, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL - Headed into North Carolina's matchup against Duke earlier this season, the Tar Heels were still recoiling from a brutal loss at Miami. But as UNC prepares to face the Blue Devils at 9 p.m. Saturday in the Dean E. Smith Center, the tides have turned.
The Tar Heels are rolling after six conference wins in a row. And this time around, forward James Michael McAdoo said something is different.
"Of course we were disappointed," McAdoo said. "We lost at Miami and then came back and lost at Duke. We feel like both of those games we could have played a little bit better and maybe the outcome would have been changed. But we're definitely just as focused as we were going into those games. There's a little bit more swagger and confidence that the guys are having that might not be displayed, but you can definitely feel it."
North Carolina has made significant changes and improvements since its 73-68 fall in Durham, N.C., on Feb. 13. The Tar Heels are consistently playing small, with sophomore guard P.J. Hairston staying as a fixture in the starting rotation. Along with putting a consistent shooter on the floor from the tip, Hairston's presence has helped with spacing and allows Carolina's players to drive to the basket more often.
Beyond the new lineup change, though, and after a few losses by about "400 points" and a 0-2 start in the ACC, head coach Roy Williams has been impressed with two areas of North Carolina's game in particular.
"Nobody's ever satisfied as a coach, but we've done some nice things," Williams said. "This team has made some good improvements. They've adopted the sense of urgency and the unselfishness that we've preached so much."
Williams added: "The other one is being able to handle some adversity a little bit better. Maryland got fired up the other night when they cut it to six, and we just kept playing. That's a pretty good quality."
That's not to say that the road against Duke will be without its challenges.
The Tar Heels last saw a Blue Devils squad sans Ryan Kelly. The senior forward came back from missing 13 games last Saturday against Miami and posted 36 points in his debut.
Williams projected that Hairston will match up against Kelly on Saturday, while McAdoo will also see some time against him. But Williams said that one of the most difficult things about playing the Blue Devils goes beyond the skills of just one star player.
"One of the things that Duke has always done really well, or at least since Mike (Krzyzewski) got there, is that they have great spacing," Williams said. "It's hard to double and jam and rotate because you have to go so far to get them. If you have four guys around one and they're all 10-feet from the basket, that's one thing. But they're four guys around one and they're all outside the three-point line, and a lot of times all of them can make that shot."
With a win against the Blue Devils, North Carolina will tie Duke for second in the ACC heading into the conference tournament that begins Thursday. But Williams said finishing second, third or fourth is all about the same to him with the ACC's competitiveness.
"It will mean a great deal to win the game, to beat Duke and to finish tied for second," Williams said. "But if we don't and Sunday morning you hear that I jumped off a building, have that investigated. I did not jump. Last year Austin (Rivers) made that shot and it just ruined me, but I did not jump. The way I look at it, at the end of season you should look back and see how well you did. You shouldn't make that kind of evaluation after one game."
So for now, UNC is focused on another game. It just so happens to be what Williams considers the biggest stage in regular-season basketball. And the Tar Heels have high hopes for it.
"We know we have a great shot to get this win, with our awesome crowd and our fan base behind us," freshman point guard Marcus Paige said. "We had a lot of opportunities to win the game at Duke, but we know here that's going to be a whole other ballgame. They have Ryan Kelly back, but we're also playing a lot better ball. Both teams are playing a lot better than they were a couple weeks ago, so it should be a fun one."