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December 3, 2013

Up-and-Down Heels gear up for No. 1

Roy Williams admits that he would rather North Carolina follow its loss to UAB with a game against a no-name opponent.

He also openly shares that when the decision was made to play at Michigan State, he thought the team would be playing with Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.

Williams says the confidence in playing at Michigan State was certainly higher at the time the decision to travel for the Big 10/ACC matchup, but he still feels that playing this game on the road is what is best for the program.

"I thought playing (in Alabama) was not playing here and that would help us out (against UAB), but it didn't," Williams said. "I've never put as much talk into where the game is being played and I think over the long term - 25 plus years - it's helped our club. UAB played well, they did some good things, I love Jerod (Haase), but let's be honest, Michigan State's another level. But I think all those (road) experiences help the club out."

"I think we have been good - it doesn't mean we're going to be any good tomorrow night - but over history, I do think we've been pretty good on the road because that gets your team believing in you."

The biggest difficulty Williams sees in facing the no. 1 team in the nation Wednesday is not about where the game will be played as much as matching Michigan State's toughness and physicality when it will come at a level this Tar Heel team has not seen yet this season.

"You can't simulate it," Williams said. "You can talk about it, explain it, to make sure they're not surprised by it. "

Williams admits that there have been times in the past when UNC had levels of intense and physical players to practice against that matched that of its opponents, but this year's strength in practice has been the opportunity to guard against sharp shooters, rather than athletes as physical as what the coach expects against MSU.

"It hasn't showed up in games yet," Williams said. "But we've had pretty good practice against two guys who can really shoot the dadgum basketball and really just make us look silly. So we've had some time in practice with that, about as good as anybody as we're going to face, but I think that's the bottom of it."

In comparison to years past, Williams believes that this season's Spartans are faster than the never-slow squads historically, and he also sees a behind-the-arc tendency.

Lack of speed was something that the coach saw plague his team in its loss Sunday. "(UAB was) just so much more active," he said. "We have some size and they have some quickness and if it's going to be a tip, a tip, a tip, the size guy's going to get it but if it's just coming off the board the first time, then it's the explosiveness, the quickest reaction time that's going to get it."

"But I think they were just so intense."

Sophomore Brice Johnson recognizes the lack of pace as the biggest difference in UAB and UNC on Sunday.

Johnson also realizes the difference as what separated North Carolina's own performance from its one just a week before.

"Everybody had a lot more energy (against Louisville)," he said. "We were talking a lot more on the defensive end, we were rebounding better, just energy. It didn't seem like we had any energy out there (against UAB)."

That lack of energy propelled Williams to say he was mad at the players after Sunday's loss, only one of very few times he said he's actually been angry.

"He was most upset about competing," Johnson said. "Coach Davis and all the other coaches were talking about how we didn't compete in the first half and then at the end of the game, they were saying the same thing."

"You have to compete, if you want to do anything good in life, you have to compete at it and we didn't compete on the backboards, we didn't have enough energy. That was just the biggest thing."

The emotion was something that Williams said took more than just a night to get over, but Monday's practice was not conduct in a fit of rage.

"That's the extent of how mad I was," Williams said. "That doesn't just leave. But I made it through practice yesterday. I didn't kick anything, I didn't kick anybody, I didn't throw anything, I didn't scream a hundred curse words or anything, but I'm not pleased."

"There's no question about that. And (the players) are not (pleased) either. So now we've got to change behaviors."
One of the biggest changes that North Carolina needs to make from its loss to UAB has to do with playing inside.

"It really was a key against Louisville, we really did some nice things," Williams said. "Brice was really important, Kennedy (Meeks) was really important. The thing that everyone's got to understand was that was just 12 days ago now, so I'm not ready to jump off the boat because we didn't score inside against UAB. It hurts a lot with Brice's foul trouble in the first half."

"We don't have guys right now, this moment, maybe we will tomorrow night, that can turn things around like that, but I think the inside scoring - Brice, Joel, Kennedy - it's nothing like it was against Louisville. Again, that was 10 days ago, (UAB) was one game, I'm hoping it'll bounce back."

The off-again-on-again nature of this season so far is something that Williams attributes to the team's lack of margin for error.

"Our margin (for error) is really small," he said. "In '09, we could play really poorly and still win a lot of games - we could play without Ty Lawson, we could play without Tyler Hansbrough - some of those guys against some pretty good teams and still win. We don't have that margin (now)."

"As a coach, what you'd like to have is that you could win by 30 or lose by 2, that's the margin that you'd like to have. Right now, our margin is not really big and it's not really good on the positive side. We have to play really, really well and that hasn't been the case. We've got to play really, really well right now."

"We did that in a lot of ways against Louisville," Williams continued. "I would think that Rick (Pitino) would probably say that he was a little disappointed in some of the things that his team did. It's always a two-way street. Belmont, it was just defensively. I mean if we'd hit some free throws we would've won the game, but we didn't play well. UAB was a lot of different things."

Johnson agrees that if North Carolina faces Michigan State the way it played Sunday, or the way it played in its loss to Belmont, the team will be blown out.

"They're a great team (Michigan State)," he said. "We have to come out there ready to play. We beat Louisville on a neutral court and coach always likes to talk about how he likes to go into their place and take their brownies, so that's what we want to do."


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