"We felt very fortunate to say the least at being able to win at Charlottesville on Saturday, it was an ugly game. I think Tony would probably agree with that assessment. But at the same time, it's a W. Neither team shot very well at all in the second half. Both teams shot less than 27 percent. And so it was a very ugly game, but yet a game that you have to win some like that to have a great year.
"What we are trying to do is win basketball games and gain some things and get better as we go each and every week. That was an important game for us, and we have got another one. You're in the ACC; you've got another one staring you right in the face, and getting into conference play is always exciting. The level of intensity is always higher, and I don't think there's anything unusual in what we faced Saturday, and what we'll have to be able to play in every other game.
"But Virginia Tech, I think they have won like five or six in a row, something like that now, and I think it's a team that we have always had some great games with; and yet last year, you know, we beat them here and they beat us up there. So we are looking forward to the game and know we have to play exceptionally well to win."
The reputation is that by the time a big guy gets any good, he's in the NBA these days. But looking around the league, Jordan Williams, Tyler Zeller, Reggie Johnson, there's a lot of really good big guys in this league. Would you talk about the fact that there are so many big guys, and also talk about the job Tyler is doing for you.
"There are some big guys maturing. Jordan Williams, Reggie Johnson, two guys people didn't know much about, got experience last year and are having big-time sophomore seasons. Jeff Allen, I watched the second half of their game Saturday, and I just thought he was sensational. Tyler is playing well for us. You've got Kyle Singler over at Duke who is a fourth-year guy.
"We do have some more maturity with our big guys this year than we have had several years ago, because a lot of those guys do leave early. But I think it's a year where the big people in the league are really playing very, very well, and the older guys are using their experience and their talents to be at the head of the class right now, and some of the younger kids are doing well, too.
"But for us, Tyler Zeller, he is a junior but he has not played a full season yet. So this has been a great thing for us for him to be healthy and be able to step up and do the things that he is doing. He's a great leader for our team on and off the court, and has the total respect of his teammates. I'm hopeful that he'll continue to get better each and every game."
You talked about sometimes you have to win ugly and that's one example of how you can have a really good season. Can you just talk about how together the guys were and how much more on the same page they were in Charlottesville than maybe what you saw last year?
"Everybody, and myself, and I'm guilty of it, too, because I do it less than everybody else, trying to compare to last year, and it's almost like we shouldn't be doing that. We should be tired of that. But this year's team showed toughness up there. This year's team didn't fold their tent. This year's team kept competing and kept trying to make a play and kept trying to find a way, and I think that's a credit to this year's team and that's the I need to start talking about them and stop making reference to last year and I hope everybody else will get to that point, too.
"Because this year's team, as all of them are unique in their own way, their own personalities, their own character and I was just proud of how things were not ugly and things were not smooth and things weren't going well. Yet we just kept plugging along, plugging along, making a basket every now and then, making a free throw every now and then, and putting ourselves in a position to win at the end. So I was really proud of them."
Trying to phrase this one without bringing up last year, but it did seem on Saturday that there was an admirable level of resolve? What allows that level of will and eagerness to find its way out of trouble and emerge as a team.
"That's a good question and I wish I knew the answer to it. Try to make sure it comes out a heck of a lot more. But it is something that I was proud of. I mean, we didn't shoot the ball well. We didn't defend as well as we wanted to, particularly about the last ten minutes of the first half. There were a lot of things that were not going well for us but we kept plugging along. And I think the tenacity, the stick-to-it-ness, if there is such a word, that is something I was really proud of. And I wish I could tell you what you have to do to get to that point. But this year's team did have it on Saturday, and we are going to need to have it throughout the course of this season."
Is that a lesson that will be brought up continually as you as you get into more trouble?
"Yeah, we will tell them the best thing to do is not get in that kind of trouble. But there's no question there is a resolve there, and we know good things can happen if you keep fighting. If you give in, nothing good is going to happen.
"At the end of the season last year, for example, Deon Thompson was so pleased that I came to practice every day thinking it was going to turn around, and that's the way I've got to act and that's the way you're our players have to act. If you don't do that, you have no chance but if you work hard, if you're organized and if you are intelligent and you keep going at it, then good things are going to happen."
Is Zeller doing certain things better this year or is he having an injury-free season so far and that's why he's shining so much?
"I think it's both. I think you don't have one if you don't have the other. He's got an opportunity to practice every day, to play, to be healthy, to get better and he's worked exceptionally hard to get better. I think it's impossible to improve a heck of a lot when you've got your wrist in a cast or something like that.
"I think that both; not just the fact that he's healthy, but the fact that he's worked exceptionally hard and he's worked exceptionally hard on his body and he's worked exceptionally hard, and he's a very bright youngster and knows what is going on out there on the court and I think that's good for him, too."
I wanted to ask you about two of your freshmen. First, I wanted to start with Kendall Marshall, he has sort of been, at least in the D.C. area, kind of a household name to basketball junkies because of how highly-touted he was. It seems like he's excelling now that he's playing a role on a team rather than being a star of a team, and what does he bring sort of that maybe no other player on your roster brings? It seems like the offense just seems to run a little more smoothly with him like a true point guard at the top.
"I think just to use your own terminology, sometimes those guys that fill a role that's perfect for them end up being a star, and that's what Kendall has an opportunity to do because he's a true quarterback, he moves the ball and get the ball to the right places and makes good decisions with the ball. He has had some freshman turnovers but not many. He's still going to turn it over because we asked him to be aggressive, but the ratio is really good and he's been finding a lot of tendonitis in his knee that's bothered him a little bit.
"I think if we can just get him 100% completely healthy, defensively he's going to be even better, as well. I think continued improvement on the defensive end of the floor and continue to use the strengths that he has with his brain and his savvy about how to play basketball can really make him an exceptional player for us.
"And Larry is doing a better job on the defensive end of the floor right now, and Kendall is doing a better job on the offensive ends of the floor. I would like to mesh both of them and have the one player that came out of that would be an unbelievable player for us. Kendall is making strides each and every day and is going to be extremely, extremely important to us as we go along with our program."
And then I wanted to ask you about Harrison Barnes. I guess with the preseason hype, how has he sort of adjusted off the court and on the court? It seems like now he has -- he's like the typical freshman now as he's gotten 15 games under his belt, he's gotten more and more comfortable and seems to be -- but how is he sort of adjusted given all of the talk that happened in the preseason?
"Well, it was -- he understands. He's a very bright youngster. He understands that it was just talk and you have to be able to go out on the court and do it out on the court. It's bothered him that he's not scored a thousand points a game and played 50 minutes in a 40-minute game but as I said earlier, he's an extremely bright young man and knows that it's a different level that he's playing. With each practice and each and every game, he's getting more and more comfortable and that's going to enable him to be even better as we go along.
"He understands how difficult it is, and yet he has a fierce determination and fierce focus to really be something special, and I think he will be."
You look at your team and I thought you guys -- if there is such a thing as quality loss, you showed a lot of resilience against Texas and of course the win against Kentucky but down by 11 on the road in Charlottesville, and now seems like your team is starting to find its identity, would you concur with that?
"I think so, but you do that through the course of the whole year. I don't think it shows up on a Saturday afternoon. We need to continue that improvement. We need to continue; there's going to be some steps you take back but you have to continue to look forward and continue trying to improve each and every day.
"And you do have that resolve; using that terminology from a little bit ago; that even though things are going well now doesn't mean that it's going to continue now. We can't change it and that's what I always say: Just because we haven't played well the last six minutes doesn't mean we can't play well the next six minutes, and tried get them to focus on the next play. I told them at halftime, that's about as bad as we played. I told them at ten-minute mark that we have been awful, but we are still here; we still have a chance, let's play now and I think that that's important to our team and I think it will continue to be important."
One of the things you've seen over the course of the season is now, the guys that you mentioned, starting to really change; what would you say would be the biggest difference from the beginning of the year, the losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt to now?
"Well, maturity is a big thing, but at the same time, those are good teams. Minnesota has a chance to tie the game yesterday at Ohio State on the road in the Big Ten; and I think Ohio State is ranked two or three or four in the country, a big-time team. So Minnesota is really good .Vanderbilt is a really good football team, and Illinois has had some great success.
"So when he had those losses we knew they were against good teams but we just didn't play as well as we needed to play. I think now the guys are understanding that we have got to really step up and play. We are going to get everybody a shot -- nobody is going to roll over just because we are North Carolina. The guys have to understand that, and I think they are each and every day."