On to Asheville
Today's 4 p.m. game at the new Kimmel Arena will conceivably be the best chance UNC Asheville's best will ever have to defeat North Carolina, certainly the best shot at this season's top-ranked team.
The Bulldogs lost to N.C. State 84-75 on Friday night in Raleigh, but this will be an entirely different event. Asheville will be playing Carolina at home, which has only happened once before, and this is the opening game of a new arena for Asheville.
On top of that, Carolina played in San Diego, Calif., on Friday night and then flew overnight to return to Asheville for this game. The players and coaches will almost certainly be fighting jet lag from the quick turnaround from the West Coast.
"North Carolina is exceptionally talented," said Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach, a former N.C. State player and assistant coach. "We know we're going to have to play a lot better than we did at N.C. State to have any chance of staying in the game.
"But our kids are very excited," Biedenbach said. "This game has been talked about for a long time, and it's finally here. It's going to be a great day at UNC Asheville on Sunday. We have a new arena, the top-ranked team in the nation opening it, a sell-out crowd, plus the game is on national television [ESPNU]. It doesn't get much better than this."
Asheville is the defending Southern Conference champion, and a year ago at the Smith Center the Bulldogs came from 22 points down in the second half to pull within six points before losing 80-69.
The Bulldogs return four starters from that team. So Carolina is not the only experienced team in this game. The Tar Heels have started slowly in their exhibition game and their opener against Michigan State.
It's easy to see them struggling early in the raucous atmosphere at Asheville as they try to get their legs going one day after flying from the West Coast.
But Williams scheduled this game to see if his team has what it takes to overcome the inevitable adversity every team faces each season. Carolina returns an immense amount of talent and added two highly recruited players in James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston.
"We have a pretty good team, so I think we should challenge them," Williams said. "If it were like '06 and 2010, I would have been scared stiff, but we want to see how we respond."
Williams has faith his team can get the job done, even if it does start slowly. He says this group has been highly motivated since last season ended one game short of the Final Four.
"Our guys have been focused and have great challenges in front of them since we lost to Kentucky," Williams said. "I think they have tremendous goals.
"We're going to try to be the best team we can possibly be," Williams said. "We set that as a goal in '05 and it worked. We set that as a goal in '09 and it worked. We set that as a legitimate goal in '08 and it did not work, but we made it to the Final Four."
Today will be a good workout toward those greater goals that lie ahead.
"Our guys know what it took to be successful last year," Williams said. "That is a part of team chemistry."
Junior forward John Henson, who had a huge game against Michigan State on Friday, echoed those sentiments.
"You don't want to be the best team the first week of the season," Henson said. "You want to be the best team the last week of the season. That is what we're working toward."
The Tar Heels hope today's game is a step in that direction.