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November 15, 2013

Tar Heels soldier forward without vets

UNC heads into yet another game Friday night against Holy Cross without veteran wings P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, and the Tar Heel players and coaches are doing the best they can to move forward and play through the adversity.

"It is what it is. Everybody is trying to their best. We're trying to move along. But it's what it is. We just go with it the best we can," said UNC head coach Roy Williams Thursday.

"I think it's unfortunate for the kids, it's unfortunate for everybody involved. I think everybody feels for them. They've been great teammates through all of this. They've been wonderful in practice. They're pushing the other guys. They've been quality teammates everyday. But I think everybody feels for them right now."

Coach Williams admitted that Hairston has been the most impressive player in practices so far this fall, while J.P. Tokoto has been the second most impressive player in workouts.

Tokoto filled up the stat sheet in last week's season opener against Oakland, and will likely get the start again for UNC Friday night against Holy Cross in Hairston's absence.

"By far the most impressive player in practice has been P.J. Hairston. It's not even close," said Williams. "(Tokoto) has shown every day in practice exactly what he showed in the game (last week). There's some, 'Oh my gosh' (moments) and some more, 'Oh my gosh.' He was four to one assist to turnover ratio, five for six in the first half and zero for five, one to four assist to turnover ratio in the second half (against Oakland). But it was great for him. I think he really enjoyed the first half. I think he had fun."

"I think he understands what he can do and now he's just got to keep the concentration and the discipline to make sure he plays like the guy in the first half and not the guy in the second half," Williams added about Tokoto. "He's had a good preseason. He's maybe the second most impressive guy we've had in the preseason. He's had a really good preseason."

Williams went into more detail about the team's routine following last week's season opener, and heading into a run of two games in three days over the weekend, as they'll return to the Smith Center for a Sunday afternoon game against Belmont.

"We did not practice Saturday because it was such a late game on Friday night," Williams replied. "We came back Sunday and had a long practice. We practiced Monday, gave them Tuesday off, came back and practiced yesterday and we'll have a practice today. We'll try to get some things done for Holy Cross, see if we can back peddle as fast as we run forward since they scored 122 last night we'll need to be able to do both."

Williams is still looking for someone to step up at the 'five' spot and make the position their own, but for now it's likely that UNC will continue to heavily rotate between Joel James, Kennedy Meeks, and Desmond Hubert.

"Somebody's got to step forward and say they're better than everybody else but that's hard to do," Williams said about the battle in the middle. "Last time the fifth spot which most of the time would be the five spot.---last game if you add Joel (James), Desmond (Hubert) and Kennedy's (Meeks) stats together it's a pretty good stat line, so I need all of them to continue contributing like that."

Carolina is considerably bigger and more capable in the low post than last season, which means the Tar Heels likely won't have to resort to the smaller lineups that were a staple a year ago---especially considering that this year, the wing is the thin area.

"It makes it a little easier somewhat if one guy steps forward but I've had teams before (at Kansas) where we had Scot Pollard, Raef LaFrentz, Greg Ostertag, the three of them rotating in those two big spots. We had Nick Collison, Drew Gooden, and Wayne Simeon, those three rotating through the two spots. I'd like to have that kind of success that we had with those teams."

Williams says the keys for the UNC big men are to pound the backboards and play strong defense around the rim, and not worry as much right now about scoring.

"We need to rebound the ball. We need to play better defense around the rim and that's the two biggest things we're looking for from them and if they happen to score, that's fantastic," the Hall of Fame coach said.

Without Hairston and McDonald the Tar Heels played well, particularly in the first half, in last week's season-opening triumph over Oakland.

It was largely due to the solid play of UNC's two point guards, Marcus Paige and Nate Britt, who are currently rotating in and out at both guard positions out of necessity.

So far that experiment has been successful, as both Paige and Britt have a bounce in their step and are playing well.

"Right now it (the Paige-Britt backcourt tandem) will definitely continue, partly because of necessity. I think it was good for Nate (to get so much early playing time). I think Nate's going to get even better," Williams said.

Williams was pleased to get so many players quality game experience, but wants to see the focus and effort ramped up tonight against Holy Cross.

"You know, I would love to say the first half (against Oakland) we played better then we have in any day of practice. And in the second half we played about as poorly as we have in any day of practice. Probably somewhere in-between is the real team but hopefully we can push them each and every day to try and get closer to that first half."

"It was pretty basketball (in the first half against Oakland)," Williams continued. "And in the second half, human nature is you don't have the same kind of motivation, the same kind of concentration. It's just what it is. But still as a coach, you try to fight to make sure you can get that. But we were really unselfish in all of the marginal passes that went through and turned into layups. The second half the marginal passes turned into turnovers."

"Oakland is a good basketball team, and I would not be shocked at all if they're an NCAA Tournament team. They're very well coached. But they're not as gifted as some of the teams that we're going to play."

That might also be the case in Friday night's game, but the Tar Heels are looking to continue growing and learning about themselves while playing short-handed before things get considerably more difficult in the coming weeks.


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