By Adam Lucas
BROOKLYN—Roy Williams is not a cruise director.
His team is ensconced in a luxurious Manhattan hotel this week with automatic blinds in each room and heated floors in the bathrooms. The Tar Heels practiced yesterday at the Brooklyn Nets practice facility, with a million dollar view of the city. Players ate dinner Wednesday night in Times Square, one of the busiest sections of real estate in America.
Williams wants his team to have a quality experience. But he doesn’t want them to be too comfortable.
That’s why the head coach stopped Wednesday’s practice with a very pointed message for his team. “This is not a vacation,” he barked. “Nobody better be here for a vacation.”
They looked a little like tourists in the first half of Thursday’s ACC Tournament quarterfinal against Miami. The Hurricanes were slightly quicker, held a narrow edge on the glass, and closed the half with seven points in less than a minute.
“As soon as we got into the locker room, I was telling the guys we have to pick it up immediately to start the second half,” said senior Nate Britt. “We knew we needed to fully attack at high intensity. We’ve been here, and we know what it takes to play and win these types of games.”
The head coach’s message was similar.
“He told us we had to play harder, and nothing was going to be easy,” said Justin Jackson. “He told us if we think it will be easy, we might as well pack up and go home.”
Instead of going home, the Tar Heels came out and completely dismantled Miami, an NCAA Tournament team, in a dominant second half that saw Carolina outscore the ‘Canes 44-24 and hold a 24-16 edge on the glass. The 78-53 win looks deceptively easy in the box score, and the 40-point turnaround from the game in Coral Gables was one of the biggest of Williams’ career.
You’ve already seen the benefits of Williams’ approach during the regular season, as the evolution of Justin Jackson turned into one of the biggest storylines of the ACC season and eventually led to Jackson’s jersey going to the Smith Center rafters. Veterans gain experience. Coaching creates improvement.
And by the time the team gets to March, the veterans are ready to pass on some of those lessons to the youngsters.
“My freshman year in the postseason, I felt like I wasn’t ready,” said Britt. “The whole game, I was on edge and I had kind of that anxiety. I could never really get comfortable. The younger guys might feel that now.”
But those younger guys also know there’s an expectation of success. The Tar Heels are the defending ACC Tournament champions and a Final Four participant.
“All they talk about is how much fun they had in the postseason last year,” said Tony Bradley, who had six points and four rebounds. “It makes us want to be part of that and experience that moment.”
They’ll get a chance in what should be an extremely tense Friday night semifinal against Duke, the first ACC Tournament meeting between the rivals since 2011 and only the second ACC Tournament meeting in the Williams era.
The tired opinion that Williams doesn’t care about the ACC Tournament has mostly been erased by the success of recent seasons, when the Tar Heels have appeared in the title game in five of the past six seasons. In case you doubt his commitment, consider this from Seventh Woods: “Coach is a winner,” the freshman said. “He’s a competitor and he wants to win everything, even if it’s just a practice drill. He gets fired up for a hydration test.”
Friday night in Brooklyn will be a little bigger than a hydration test, and it won’t be a vacation. The Carolina upperclassmen know what’s coming.
“In your very first game of the ACC Tournament your freshman year, you realize there’s a different type of intensity to these games,” said Jackson. “It has a different type of feel to it. We’ve talked with them about the experiences we’ve had the last couple of years in the tournaments. That will help leading into these games. If they take that as seriously as they need to, we’ll be good.”