Even a hard-fought 62-56 victory at Virginia on Saturday could not satisfy Carolina's critics.
Some fans discredited Virginia as a poor team, thereby belittling the Tar Heels' victory. Time will prove whether UNC has improved from a year ago. From where I sit, this is a different team: in talent, desire and potential.
Unfamiliarity remains the biggest hurdle at the moment. UNC's core group consists of three freshmen and three sophomores. Toss in three juniors and a transfer student and the chore is learning how to play together and without hesitation.
One thing is sure -- there are plenty of players at Coach Roy Williams' disposal. Ten different Tar Heels played double-digit minutes against Virginia. Junior Tyler Zeller led the way with a team-high 12 points in 31 minutes.
The Tar Heels won this one with solid defense and rebounding down the stretch, holding Virginia to 26-percent shooting in the second half.
"Their defense was good," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "We got stagnant, we just couldn't do as much in the lane."
Carolina's critics point to Virginia's poor effort in some non-conference games. Yet anyone who has watched ACC basketball through the years knows that when Carolina or Duke come to Charlottesville, Virginia is going to play in peak form. They did it again early on Saturday, and Carolina had to find something within itself that the 2010 team did not have.
"We fought," Williams said. "We had some toughness today, more toughness than I've seen in a long time. This isn't a cut against last year's team, but last year's team did not show that toughness when we got down."
A mistake some people make is confusing the effort teams display in conference games and non-conference games. There is no comparison as a rule. This is why one should not belittle any ACC road victory. For example, Clemson has never won in Chapel Hill, but playing the Tigers at Littlejohn Coliseum is difficult for UNC and Duke, just as it is in Charlottesville.
The 2008 Tar Heels, which later played in the Final Four, needed a 3-pointer at the buzzer from Wayne Ellington to beat the Tigers. The same team Carolina team squeezed by Virginia 75-74 in Charlottesville.
The challenge for Williams so much of the time these days is to overcome losses to graduation and to the NBA. His top seven scorers from the 2005 national champions left after that season, but Carolina managed to finish strong in the ACC standings in 2006. Now that team is remembered as if it had no problems. But even with a freshman named Tyler Hansbrough, the Tar Heels to Virginia at at Charlottesville.
Following consecutive losses to Miami and Virginia, Williams had to stop practice one day to reassure his team that it would be OK.
Those Tar Heels kept working hard and eventually concluded the regular season by beating Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium on J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams' senior night.
One cannot connect the dots with opponents. It just doesn't work. Each night is different, and development takes time. Two years following a loss at Virginia and barely edging Gardner-Webb on a last-second shot, several players from 2006 were danced in Detroit after defeating Michigan State for the 2009 national championship.
The lesson is fans who are wringing their hands about this team should relax. This is not the 2010 team.
These Tar Heels are developing more cohesion and a tougher team. Carolina made 17 of 22 free throws in the second half on Saturday at Virginia, overcoming difficult game pressure. There are no guarantees, of course. UNC could lose Virginia Tech on Thursday at 9 p.m. in Chapel Hill in UNC's next game. The Tar Heels could also slip by with a 1-point victory, which would satisfy Williams. He knows close, hard-fought victories can form the foundation on which championship teams are eventually built.
"I liked our toughness," Williams said. "We needed to be tough to have a chance. Defensively we did get a little better."