Silencing the Comparisons

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Roy Williams and his merry band of Tar Heels are ready for the comparisons to the '09-'10 season to end. But victories, not words, are the key to vanquishing the past, and North Carolina has an opportunity to sever that link with a pivotal three-games-in-six-days stretch beginning on Thursday.

Williams has started his crusade to kill the comparisons by telling anyone who will listen that references to last season need to stop. He first offered that suggestion during his ACC teleconference on Monday, and then took time during his weekly press conference on Wednesday to relay the same message.

"I'm serious, you guys make 50 times more references to last year than I do," Williams told reporters in the Smith Center's media room. "Last year was last year. It's over. There's not one blessed thing I can do about it. And I'm not criticizing you, it's just that I get tired of talking about last year. [Heck], I had to live through it. Why should I want to talk about something like that?"

But the comparisons exist for a reason. The '09-'10 season will never be one that fans look back on in fond memory, but rather as an albatross that threatens the grandeur of the North Carolina basketball program. The fear that the not-so-distant past could possibly emerge once again is enough to keep everyone involved with an eye on the rearview mirror.

And that even goes for Williams, who was the first to reference last season following Saturday's come-from-behind victory at Virginia.

"We fought and we had some toughness – more toughness today than I've seen in a long time," Williams said in his postgame press conference. "And I told them, it's not a cut against last year's team, but last year's team didn't show that toughness when it got down."

The statistical differences between this year and last are minimal. The current squad boasts an 11-4 (1-0 ACC) record and is shooting 46.4 percent, outscoring its opponents by 12.3 points and holding those opponents to 40.0 percent shooting. At a similar juncture of the season, the '09-'10 edition owned a 12-4 (1-0 ACC) record and was shooting 49.5 percent, outscoring its opponents by 12.5 points and holding those opponents to 40.8 percent.

Add to that the questionable guard play that has overlapped the seasons and it's easy to see why the comparisons come so effortlessly.

But it's also important to note the differences. North Carolina lost to Virginia, 75-60, on Jan. 31, 2010, and seven Tar Heels logged more than 10 minutes. Only two of those seven players – Larry Drew and Dexter Strickland – are on the current roster and played against the Cavaliers on Saturday.

Each team has its own identity, and every team changes, just as its players do. Tyler Zeller has thrived in the post in his first injury-free season in Chapel Hill, Drew and Strickland have improved defensively, John Henson is more effective on both ends of the floor and Leslie McDonald has already made 13 more 3-pointers (24-to-11) than he did in just as many attempts (53) last season.

The players have undoubtedly utilized the '09-'10 season as a motivational tool, but their focus is on the present, not the past.

"Last year is last year," McDonald said. "We dwell on this year. We know what happened last year, and it wasn't good. We try not to dwell on that. This is a new year and a new season."

The talk sounds good, but the real test in determining how much of an anomaly last season actually was will continue to play out on the hardwood.

North Carolina passed its first test with a gritty performance in Charlottesville last weekend. Now comes a difficult stretch of games, beginning with Virginia Tech at home on Thursday, followed by a road trip to Georgia Tech on Sunday and another home game against Clemson on Tuesday.

"That's a pretty difficult challenge," Williams said of the cluster of ACC games. "It's tough enough to have a game on Sunday and one on Tuesday, much less with a game on Thursday right before that."

The '09-'10 Tar Heels faced a similar task, playing two home games and one on the road during a seven-day stretch after defeating Virginia Tech in their ACC opener. UNC lost all three of those games to set the stage for a 5-11 mark in conference play.

Reversing that trend will go a long way in making columns like this irrelevant when March rolls around.

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