Tar Heels upbeat as opener against Villanova looms

Mar. 22, 2013 @ 06:55 AM

P.J. Hairston grabbed a microphone and kept inching it closer and closer to Marcus Paige’s face. Across the room, Dexter Strickland juggled two apples and an orange. Soon six of the players formed a circle and played a quick guessing game called Catch Phrase.

Then it came time for an open practice. Coach Roy Williams signed memorabilia for young fans as the players warmed up at the Sprint Center. Later he waved his arms to get the pro-Kansas crowd on its feet before J.P. Tokoto rose over 6-10 center Joel James and dunked to end the 40-minute session.

There was a lighthearted atmosphere surrounding North Carolina’s team Thursday, one day before it’s NCAA Tournament opener. It was a marked change from a frustrating beginning to the season, when a series of lopsided losses caused the Tar Heels to drop from No. 9 to out of the AP poll.

“We’re excited to be here,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “There were times early in the season when people wondered if we were going to be in any tournament. Right now you have the postseason NIT and 13 other tournaments. We didn’t know if we would be in any of them.”

Now the No. 8-seeded Tar Heels have won eight of their last 10 games heading into their game against No. 9 Villanova (7:20 p.m., TNT).

UNC (24-10) has turned its season around in part after changing to a smaller lineup with the 6-5 Hairston as power forward. The lineup change sacrifices rebounding and shot-blocking in exchange for scoring, steals and a faster pace.

The move represented a big switch for Williams, who could become the fourth active coach with 700 career victories tonight. Most of those wins came by playing through the post.

“It was a major change for us,” Williams said. “It was something I was not comfortable with. I’m still not comfortable with it. Your job as a coach is to just not let things go. You have to keep trying things to become more successful.”

The small lineup opened up the floor for Paige and Strickland to drive and find Hairston, Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald for open shots. UNC never took more than 22 3-pointers in a game in 2011-12, but have matched or eclipsed that mark 14 times this season. With seven attempts today, this group will have shot more 3-pointers than any UNC team but one (2002-03).

Strickland said he expects the Tar Heels to continue to shoot from long range today. That could be a problem for Villanova (20-13), which is 293rd in 3-point percentage defense, having allowed opponents to shoot 36.6 percent from behind the arc.

“That is an area we have struggled all year, defending the three-point line,” Wildcats coach Jay Wright said. “So, of course, this is the way it works. Who do you get in the NCAA tournament? The only Carolina team that ever has relied strictly on a 3-point line.”

UNC, which had four starters selected in the 2012 NBA Draft, wasn’t the only team facing doubts at the start of the season. Coming off a 13-19 season in which it missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight years, Villanova was picked to finish 12th in the Big East preseason media poll.

Both teams also took opposite paths to today’s 8-9 game. UNC struggled against top opponents — going 0-6 against top 10 teams Miami, Duke and Indiana — but beat up on unranked teams. The Wildcats stumbled against lesser competition — being swept by Providence and losing by 18 against Columbia — but beat Louisville, Georgetown and Syracuse at home when each of those three teams was ranked in the top five.

“I’ve never had a team like this,” Wright said. “I’ve had a young team that has struggled and been a little inconsistent, but I don’t think they’ve had the incredible accomplishments that this team has had, and at the same time has as poor a performance as this team has had.”

UNC is also young, and even the lineup switch couldn’t stop losses to Duke and Miami. But it did create a more confident group.

“It has been good for us,” Williams said. “We made the decision to try something to see if the positives outweigh the negatives. So far we think they have. But there’s no question that it’s give and take.”

NOTES — Hairston said he would have his non-shooting hand taped when he plays today and that his eight stitches may not come out until Monday. The sophomore guard tore the webbing between two fingers in his left hand during the ACC Tournament. … UNC has failed to win at least one game just once in its last 28 NCAA Tournament appearances.