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December 4, 2012North Carolina came back to the Smith Center Saturday evening and withstood a challenge from UAB, claiming a 102-84 win to improve to 6-2 on the young season.
UNC's players will study for and take end-of-semester exams this week, but they'll return to practice and will play again Saturday, as they take on East Tennessee State in a night game in Chapel Hill.
For UNC head coach Roy Williams, this is a challenging time working practice around the players' exam schedules, and its also a critical time for the team to improve in the weeks leading up to the start of ACC regular season play in early January.
"It is difficult. One day we have practice this week, we have 12 players taking exams that day," said Williams during Monday night's Radio Show.
"We've had to change a little bit, moving up practice times so I can go out recruiting. It is a tough schedule, and we don't know until the week before who's got exams at certain times."
"We're going to play Saturday, hopefully have some great practices before then," he added.
Williams and the Tar Heels are hopeful to have back freshman point guard Marcus Paige for Saturday's game. He sat out this past weekend's triumph over UAB with shoulder inflammation, but an X-Ray came back negative.
Coach Williams said he was likely to resume practicing later this week, and there's optimism he will take the court on Saturday evening.
"They (the UNC Doctors) determined he's just got inflammation or irritation of the bursa sac in the elbow," Williams said. "They took X-rays (Monday). The x-rays were negative so they feel good about their diagnosis of what it is."
"He (Paige) did have better range of motion (Monday) than he did (Sunday) and it was better (Sunday) than it was Saturday. I'm hopeful that by Wednesday he'll be able to practice and then be able to play this weekend," Williams continued.
Another Tar Heel who recently has been injured is P.J. Hairston, who didn't even make the trip to Indiana as he worked through a sprained left knee.
Hairston returned this past weekend, and while he struggled early on in his return against UAB, his 16 second half points were huge for Carolina in the victory over the Blazers.
"Sometimes kids worry about their injuries, especially if they've never been hurt," Williams said of Hairston.
"I think P.J. worried more about that than he should have (in the first half). He relaxed and played a little bit harder, let himself go a little bit more. He was big for us in the second half. If it's the first time you're really hurt, it's a shock to you."
With Paige and Hairston still a little banged up, as well as multiple other players, Monday's UNC practice looked as much like a M.A.S.H unit as anything else.
"My injured list for (Monday's practice) was longer than my non-injured list," Williams said, adding that James Michael McAdoo, Dexter Strickland, and Luke Davis all sprained ankles over the course of Saturday's game."
Fortunately, one player who was injured last year has come back remarkably well, as Leslie McDonald scored a game-high 24 points Saturday night.
"Leslie, each game, each day, each week he's getting better about trusting it (his knee)," Williams said.
With so many players banged up in practice, it's providing more opportunity for guys like J.P. Tokoto to show what they can do. While Tokoto hasn't played heavily early on, his minutes could go up as UNC looks to compensate for its injuries, while also finding a smaller lineup that might be more capable defensively.
"J.P. is one of those guys who is a big-time athlete. J.P. is a fantastic athlete. Can be a big-time defender. Doesn't shoot it right now as well as he's going to shoot it. Needs to make better decisions as far as turning it over," Williams said of Tokoto.
"J.P., his shot is going to get better. He came with Leslie in front of him, Reggie (Bullock) in front of him, Dexter in front of him, P.J. in front of him, so it's hard to get him minutes."
"Sometimes you have to be a little patient and you have to learn and improve, but J.P. is going to do some good things for us."
While Tokoto helps UNC go smaller without a huge letdown, Williams was quick to point out that just because the Tar Heels might go smaller, it doesn't automatically mean they'll press more.
"A smaller lineup does not mean we're going to press more. Just because we're smaller doesn't necessarily mean we're quick enough to be going to be out pressing people," Williams said. "Marcus Paige is not a tremendous athlete, but he has tremendous savvy."
In addition to potentially employing a smaller lineup at times, another idea that Williams is toying around with in practice is the idea of playing more zone.
That's usually a last-ditch thing for Williams, who has long prided himself on coaching great man-to-man defense, but this year, with this team, he is exploring new ways to maximize his personnel and give them the best chance of winning each time out.
Which means Williams might have to do some things he's not used to doing, like playing zone.
"We may play more zone. You've just got to find something kids can do," he said. "I've already practiced zone twice this year, and I've had years where we never practiced zone. This team, if you think about it, if we go small, how are we going to handle it if the other team brings in two big guys?"
"We're probably going to start trying to change defenses a little bit more, like we used to do."
Williams readily admits he prefers fast-paced, high-tempo basketball to slower, more deliberate play, but at the same time, this North Carolina team must find a consistent inside threat to be as good as it can be.
"I think for me, it's just a prettier way to play basketball (playing at a high tempo). It's team-oriented basketball. I enjoy the motion. I enjoy the offensive play when all five guys have a chance to touch the ball. And for us, it's just what you believe in."
"We have to have an inside threat. You have to have an inside threat if you're going to be any good. James Michael has got to be a scorer for us. Brice (Johnson) has got to be a scorer," Williams continued.
"He (McAdoo) is a guy that we count on for scoring, and we feel like he'll give us that almost every night."
With so many players banged up this week in practice, Williams has shifted his attention this week to teaching.
He says that Monday's workout wasn't nearly as intense physically as some of the practices immediately following the Butler and Indiana losses, and that's by design as he looks to implement more learning into practice instead of merely running.
Although running sure can be a good deterrent to a lack of focus and energy in practice.
"I'm one of those guys that thinks you can learn and still win. If you play poorly and still win, I like that better than losing. Today's kids, it does hit them between the eyes a little bit more with a loss, especially if its an embarrassing loss like the one at Indiana," Williams said.
"You have a chance to teach (this time of year)," the Hall of Fame coach continued. "That's what we're trying to to right now. (Monday's practice) their heart rates didn't get above 75. But at the same time, you've got to learn and make changes. I told them they need to learn it, or we'll start running all the time."
Williams is hopeful that the humiliating experiences in Hawaii and Indiana will light a fire under his team.
"I want them to hurt badly, because I think that's one way they'll change more. If the game doesn't matter to them, they won't change and you won't be very good," he said.
During Monday's Radio Show Williams also touched briefly on his two point guards from a season ago---Kendall Marshall and Stilman White.
Marshall, of course, was a lottery pick this summer by the Phoenix Suns, but a lack of playing time as relegated him to the NBA Developmental League.
"I've spoken to Kendall a couple of times. They (the Suns) really have tremendous dreams and hopes for him. Right now it's a tougher situation. They want him to get playing time on a professional level," Williams said of his former star point.
"When you leave college early for the NBA, you would like for it to be smooth and have playing time right away but it hasn't been that way for Kendall. He'll be there (in the D-League) for nine games, and hopefully it will help him."
White, on the other hand, has begun his Mormon Mission, messaging out the word of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints throughout several Western states.
Williams indicated that White will be returning to the UNC roster in two years, after his Mission concludes.
White would have three additional seasons of eligibility at North Carolina starting with the 2014-2015 season.
"Yeah, the plan is still there for him to re-join the team," Williams said of White. "He just recently started (his Mission) this fall. He's a neat young man. It will be interesting to hear him talking about his experiences."