"It was a great day for us on Saturday. It's been a fantastic run by our club down the stretch here. We're ecstatic to be the regular season champions, and looking forward to playing in the tournament. We know it's going to be a big-time challenge for us, but we're anxious and looking forward to playing."
Losing Reggie Bullock for the rest of the season and the fact that to win the tournament you'd have to win three games in three days, your depth is obviously affected. How is that going to show up during the course of a tournament like this?
"Well, you hope it doesn't show up, but more than likely it is going to with only eight scholarship players trying to play three days in a row, especially at the pace that we like to play. It is really difficult. It's been difficult the last couple of games without Reggie, and without having a game the very next day. But our depth is something that we've been concerned about all year. We originally were concerned about our depth upfront, and we were concerned about our depth in the back court, particularly at the point guard spot. Now we're concerned about our depth period.
"So it is a question mark for us. So we want to try to get some things done in practice this week. But to be as close to tip-top shape as we can be when we get there. May even have to use more timeouts than I've ever used to try to see if we can get through it. But our whole focus is going to be on that first game. You know you can do all the plans you want to about how are you going to space things out to play three days, but if you don't play well the first day, all that other planning doesn't do you any good."
Is this a case where there's really not anybody else available to step into those minutes? Do you just sort of have to spread those minutes around? Everybody else have to pick up maybe one or two more?
"No, we have eight scholarship players and the six walk-ons are wonderful kids, but they're not in a position to have them come in and assume the kind of role that we need in those other spots. So we have eight players that are going to play the minutes, and that's what it's going to have to be."
It's been a wild ride for you guys this year. Can you kind of walk me through the landmarks of when you saw this coming together and were there, you know, particular turning points do you think for this team?
"You know, that's a good question. Probably take a very long answer that you don't have enough space to write it, and I don't have enough time tell it. But in some ways I guess you could say it's been wild ride when you talk about the off-season also. During the season it really hasn't been for us. I mean, it has been for the fans, the supporters of North Carolina basketball, the critics, that way, but it really hasn't been for us. "I think I've been pretty much on the same key the whole time with the exception of the Georgia Tech game. The reason I say it like that, I said it the day after these games, the week after these games. But we lose to Minnesota; we lose to Vanderbilt; we lose to Illinois. We lose to Illinois at home at their place. We lose to Minnesota, Vanderbilt and Texas, and they were higher. They probably should have been picked to beat us anyway. So for me, it wasn't a panic city like it was some of the fans or some of the critics.
"I don't think it's been that wild a ride with the exception, and I will say this, of the departure of Larry Drew and the Georgia Tech game. Those are the things that were very emotional for our entire team. I think the Georgia Tech game really opened our eyes as to what can happen if you're not completely focused and everybody completely together. Larry's deal really shocked us, and we realized that we had to pull together even more, and everybody had to do just a little bit more with their effort and with their concentration and with their emphasis on how our team was doing. Those were the two landmarks, I guess, that I could say.
"If I were to add another one, I would say what we showed in the first game at Virginia, when things were just about as ugly as they could be, but we found a way to make some plays down the stretch and win the game. I think that toughness is something that I talked about after that game and I've talked about it a great deal during the course of the whole season."
As an outsider, it really looks though like the maturity and development of Kendall Marshall and his emergence at point has been the thing that turned you guys from a team that, as you said, weren't bad losses, but when you're playing Vanderbilt and Minnesota, they may have been the better team. Now you're a much, much better team, and it seems like his development, which has helped other guys, has been a factor. Is that right?
"No, I would agree with you. You know, Kendall did some really nice things early. Then he had a lull including in the Illinois name where he just wasn't very good. Then he started coming back up again. Then when we decided to make the switch and take Larry out of the starting lineup, for those first four games I was really pleased with our point guard play. I mean really pleased because Kendall was doing some nice things, Larry was doing some nice things. Even the last game we both played against Boston College, it was like they were 18-2, assist ratio, you can look it up to get it right. But it was really, really good.
"But then the other was the emergence maybe more so after Larry left, because I ask Kendall to go from 20 or 21 minutes a game to 35, and the fact that the youngster handled it so well was crucial. I think that the other guys did get even better as that time period went along."
How much do you care and pay attention to NCAA Tournament seedings? Is there a big difference to you whether your team is a No. 3 or a No. 2 or a No. 1 or a No. 4?
"I'd much rather be a No. 1 than anyplace, no question. My second choice would be a No. 2, and my third choice would be No. 3. I think that's pretty commonplace in everybody and much understandable. But to answer the first part of your question, I almost never, and I'm serious, I almost never pay any attention to those things. On Sunday they'll tell us what our seed is and where we're going to play, and I'll start trying to prepare.
"But I really don't. I don't pay attention to those things. I think it's a useless waste of my time because all my thinking that I do on it doesn't have any bearing on it. So I look at it, why waste the time even thinking about it. But there is no question you'd like to have the best seed you possibly can, and then go from there. I do think of location on Sunday when they do make the announcements. I think of the location more than I think of the seed because I just want the warmer weather."
What would it mean to this team if it was able to play in Charlotte? That is obviously the closest place and you have a lot of fans there?
"Well, I'm sure that we would all love it. But you've heard me say before, it's not just where you play, it's how you play when you get there. But there's no question it would be a lot easier for everybody to travel and the accessibility for our parents and the fans and everyone."
Take me back for a second for the last calendar year, and everything that you and your program have been through from the transferring of the Wear twins, and Will Graves getting kicked off the team and Larry Drew quitting, and everything you've dealt with. Four losses before December, and then you culminate it with winning the regular season championship against Duke on Saturday night. Did you just take a minute to exhale after the last 365 days and everything you've been through?
"Well, I tell you, Saturday night was a lot more fun than those other things you mentioned. I can tell you that. At the end of the season last year I was so disappointed in the way we had played for the course of the whole season. I did appreciate the way our guys hung together and made a nice run in the NIT. And did a lot of the damage on the road. It wasn't three home games and then go to New York for us. So we had to go play at Starkville and at Birmingham. So I was pleased with the way they finished out. If we had had played better against Dayton or Dayton hadn't played as well, it would have brought a little satisfaction. But it was still a disappointing year for us.
"But the big thing started in May when David and Travis decided not to come back. That was a big blow for us. So we fought our way through that, and we were able to find Justin Knox, so felt like we had some stability. Then Will Graves' thing was a real shock to us, the biggest shock that I've ever had. So we fought our way through that. Then Larry Drew, and then that was the biggest shock that I ever had.
"So it went from the Wears being the biggest shock, to Will being the biggest shock, to Larry's deal. But the kids, the resiliency, the toughness, the persistence of the guys and the way they accepted our attempts at motivation for them and the attempts that we as a staff made to try to bring them together was really satisfying and very satisfying the way we played down the stretch.
"It was very satisfying with the mental toughness of our kids. Very satisfying the way they really did pull together and the wonderful chemistry that they have off the court and on the court. So it hasn't been a smooth year to say the least. It's been the most difficult. Last year the losing was the most difficult thing, and all the injuries that we -- again, I've said this before -- our top eight guys missed 48 games. I've never had a year like that.
"We wouldn't have been quite as bad as if we had been able to stay healthy. But the fact of the matter was that we were not, and the off-season, two events and then the thing with Larry in the middle. I'm just so proud of my club because of the way they have handled things. They've accepted some of our suggestions. Handled getting through this and came up with enough of their own to handle it despite the many bad moves I've probably made."
Having won 17 of your last 19 games, and obviously with the ACC Tournament coming up, you guys shot the ball really well against Duke on Saturday night. How do you sustain that? What are the things that perhaps you want to improve going forward?
"Well, the last part's easy. We want to improve everything. We shot a good percentage. We didn't shoot a lot of outside shots and we need to make more than four threes in a game. We were 4 for 9, so I have zero problems with that percentage.
"But we'll need to make more outside shots and we realize that. But I also try to push for great balance of inside play and outside play. We do want to get better in every phase of the game. We're going to go to practice here at 12:00 today and work on the offense, the defense, the rebounding, and the transition game and try to just keep working at it."