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December 8, 2013

A Compelling Reunion

Coming off last Sunday's loss to UAB in Birmingham, North Carolina's Roy Williams was in no mood to allow another one of his former players to get the best of him.

While it's true that Jerod Haase's Blazers were playing at home and caught UNC in a rut---perhaps looking ahead to Wednesday's upset over No. 1 Michigan State in East Lansing---the last thing Williams and the Tar Heel fans in the Smith Center wanted to see Saturday night was another lethargic effort against a mid-major.

Wes Miller has a major rebuilding project in line at UNC-Greensboro, and he's doing it the Carolina Way. Using many of the same tactics he learned during his time under Williams at UNC, Miller had the Spartans playing .500 ball at 4-4 before Saturday night's 81-50 blowout.

Miller admitted after the game that it was a surreal feeling for him walking into the Smith Center as the enemy for the first time after years of being a beloved figure.

"I thought this was an awkward feeling walking in here to play after having so many good experiences an memories in this building," Miller said. "I told Coach (Williams) before the game this was the first time that I ever truly loved the person that I'm playing against on the other end of the bench."

For Williams' part, the game was unique in that he wasn't just facing Miller but actually three of his former players, as UNC-G has other former Tar Heels Jackie Manuel and J.B. Tanner serving as assistant coaches.

"I'd like to have had them on my team," Williams joked about the UNC-G coaching trio. "Wes made a lot of shots. Jackie was as good a defensive player in the wing as I've ever had, and J.B. could shoot the dickens out of it in practice, so I knew he could do it in the game too."

"They all look a little older. And I don't know what kind of shape they're in, but they could probably help our team as players (now)."

"They're three great guys. You've heard me say before, Wes Miller has been closer to reaching his potential as a player as I've ever coached," Williams continued. "He pushed and pushed and pushed and got about as close as he could get. Jackie was extremely important winning a national championship, and they're going to be very successful as coaches."

Williams expressed praise when talking about the rebuilding job that Miller, Manuel, and Tanner are currently undertaking in Greensboro.

"Just watching Wes's club warm up today, I said this is a different team," Williams said.

"We scrimmaged them four or five years ago, and Wes was an assistant at that time. And they didn't look like basketball players like they look like right now. They're more athletic. They're bigger, the whole bit."

Both coaches agreed that once the game got going, they didn't want to know who was on the other side of the court.

"Coming in here (the Dean Dome) is hopefully never easy on anybody," said Williams.

"I told him (Miller) I was not going to look down at his bench, because I didn't want to know he was coaching during the game, and that's exactly the way I felt in Birmingham as well (going against Haase)."

"I didn't look down there (at the UNC bench) one time," added Miller. "I couldn't look at him (Williams) because that was really awkward. But as far as the game goes, you have to give those guys a lot of credit. I think they (UNC) are starting to hit some strides, especially defensively."

Certainly it helped from North Carolina's perspective that they pretty much knew what to expect from UNC-Greensboro, and that they had faced a team in UAB the week before who is essentially running their plays as well.

Two games against former UNC players essentially means two opportunities to see a mirror of yourself in terms of plays and schemes.

"It (knowing UNC-G's game plan) helped a lot, but they knew the things that we would be doing (too)," said freshman guard Nate Britt. "We just needed to play smart, keep moving on offense, and not get too stagnant."

"We got dismantled on the backboards," said Miller. "It just felt like every possession, when a shot goes up I'm sitting there praying that it won't go in and I'm praying right back again that we'll get the ball. Their (UNC's) size is a huge factor. Their athleticism is a huge factor. Coach does such a good job at teaching that (rebounding) technique and tipping it out and getting extra possessions that way."

Saturday's game was probably as much of a learning experience as anything for Miller as he looks to take root as one of the youngest and more promising members of the so-called Carolina Coaching Tree.

"It's funny. The first time I ever sat down and talked to Wes Miller, I said, 'What do you want to be doing ten years after you're playing?' and he said, 'I want to be coaching.' And I said, 'You should come here (to North Carolina.' And he's going to be a good coach," said Williams.

"I think we're a young group, but we have to figure out how to become a mature group come January and February," added Miller. "If we can be mature---we are still going to be young---but if we can be mature come January and February, we can have a chance to do some good things in our league."


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